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Tech barriers impeding checks on banned welfare purchases

FITCHBURG — The state’s welfare department still does not have the technological capability to prevent recipients from using electronic benefits transfer cards to buy such items as tobacco, pornography, and vacation services, Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz said Thursday.

The Legislature banned such usage in a July 2012 law after a series of embarrassing disclosures of prurient purchases, but technological barriers remain for the agency overseeing the effort, the Department of Transitional Assistance.

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In testimony at a budget hearing convened at the Dukakis Performing Arts Center, Polanowicz said he had directed that Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan make sure public assistance is used only for essential items by confirmed beneficiaries.

“The technology that we’re using with Xerox allows us to block usage by the store,” Polanowicz told the News Service after the testimony. “It does not, at least currently, have the ability to block individual purchases at the store level.”

Health and Human Services Communications director Alec Loftus said no such system exists in the country, meaning that each retailer would have to set up its own system, and he said store owners had been advised of the law’s restrictions.

“For tobacco and alcohol, the things that are banned by law, we sent out communications to all the retailers informing them that they are prohibited from vending those goods to EBT card holders, and announcing the fines,” Loftus said. He said, “We send regular communications informing them.”

Polanowicz sympathized with the difficulty retailers might have in complying with the new requirements.

“If I put my retailer hat on, one can imagine how hard it would be to determine: OK, this person’s in line. They’ve scanned everything. They’re now paying with their EBT. Oh, I have to take these things off,” Polanowicz said. “And the training and education of thousands upon thousands of people at the front end, I’m assuming that the retailers association would not be able to actually do that in a consistent way.”

After attempting to amend the bill, Governor Deval Patrick acknowledged the technological shortfall.

“I sign this bill with the understanding and on due notice that this administration will not enforce what cannot be ­enforced with respect to the use of EBT cards,” Patrick wrote to the Legislature.

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