State issues food stamp cards in dead people’s names

Continuing coverage

The I-Team has previously reported on errors the state made in rushing to issue emergency food stamp aid following June’s “derecho” wind storm. This story was generated from tips from readers. If you have tips for potential stories about government spending, call the I-Team hotline at (937) 225-2494.

Last month, Lorene Marshall, 80, retrieved the mail at her Xenia assisted living apartment.

One envelope was addressed to her twin sister, Irene Cheeseman, who died in 2003 following a fight with cancer. Someone, perhaps a postal worker, had handwritten “here?” on the envelope.

Inside was a State of Ohio food stamp card in her sister’s name, loaded with about $3 in benefits.

The card was one of roughly 38,000 the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services erroneously sent out following the violent June 29 wind storm. The state shouldn’t have sent out new cards, according to officials. Instead, money should have been loaded onto exisiting benefit cards.

The computer glitch resulted in a waste of about $45,000, the administrative cost of printing and sending out the cards.

In some instances — state officials don’t know how many — the cards were issued in the names of people who had died but who were still in the state’s computer system. No extra benefits were paid and cards went to the right homes, according to a state spokeswoman. They were just inscribed with incorrect names.

Lillian Robinson said Marshall, her mother, suffers from dementia, which has made it especially difficult for her to cope with her twin sister’s death. She was a “basket case” after receiving the card, Robinson said.

“My mom is still agonizing over her death,” she said. “When she got this, it started the grieving process all over again.”

Angela Terez, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, said the glitch that caused the problem has been identified and fixed.

“We apologize for any inconvenience or distress or confusion this may have caused people, and we’ve since corrected the problem so it should not happen again.”

The error happened after a computer program misidentified the people who were heads of households with food stamp accounts across the state, choosing instead apparently random peoople that had lived in that household over the years. Since those people did not have a food stamp card, a state vendor ordered new cards in those names, and state officials didn’t catch the mistake.

Joel Potts, executive director of professional association for Ohio’s county JFS directors, said he heard about the “bizarre” situation from “a couple” of counties.

“People who contacted counties initially were worried it was identify theft people trying to access their accounts,” Potts said. “It certainly caused confusion.”

Two families the Dayton Daily News interviewed for this story who received cards in the names of dead relatives said the move unsettled their emotions, as well as their trust in the system.

“I was in shock when I got it. He’s been gone 11 years,” said Sue Miller, also of Xenia, who received a card in the name of Justin Ratliff, her former son-in-law, loaded with about $4 in benefits.

Ratliff, 20, died in 2001 in a car crash on U.S. 35 near Beavercreek.

“I didn’t appreciate them bringing up bad memories,” said Katie Blowers, of Riverside, who was married to Ratliff when he died.

“As a taxpayer, it really irritates me,” Blowers said. “I get benefits personally and I appreciate that. But I also pay into the system, and I feel that they’re wasting my money when they do that.”

Robinson said when she saw the food stamp card, she first suspected fraud. But after contacting Greene County Job and Family Services and customer service for the Texas-based company that sent out the cards, she determined the state made a mistake, she said.

“It makes me very angry, because I have to be accountable for my money. But how accountable are they (the state)? I don’t know,” Robinson said.

So, what if you got one of the cards?

Generally, households that received food stamp cards with a wrong name can still use them, as long as the person whose name appears on the card still lives in that household, said Greene County JFS Director Beth Rubin.

But the actual outcome is a case-by-case basis. Anyone who received a food stamp card with a wrong name on it should contact their county JFS department, Rubin said.

“People should bring it in to the county and get it cleaned up,” she said.

The Daily News has previously reported on errors the state made in rushing to quickly distribute $10 million in federally -funded emergency food stamp benefits to 280,000 households across Ohio following the June windstorm. The extra benefits were to help replace food that may have spoiled following widespread power outages.

But a newspaper investigation found that the state used wildly inaccurate numbers for counties in southwest Ohio in the application process identifying which parts of the state were hardest-hit by power outages and, in turn, eligible for emergency aid.

The state’s application to the federal government overstated the number of power outages as much as five times in areas served by energy providers Duke Energy and Dayton Power & Light. As a result, 50,100 households in Montgomery County received $1.7 million in extra food stamps they wouldn’t have qualified for had the state used correct data. That doesn’t include possible other counties.

Some counties opted out of the federal aid over concerns over the inaccurate information. For instance, Butler County chose instead to award benefits to people who asked for it. As a result, the county awarded about $1,500 in aid to 55 households.

Had Butler County not opted out, residents there automatically would have received at minimum $642,000 in extra benefits, according to a newspaper estimate.