Mississippi on verge of statewide EBT

Mississippi soon could be joining the ranks of states with electronic benefits transfer systems that enable recipients to manage their benefits.

The state's Department of Human Services (www.mdhs.state.ms.us) is set to begin a pilot program next year in Rankin County in which recipients of food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) will get debit cards to use at selected automated teller machines to purchase groceries or receive TANF benefits.

The state has awarded Lockheed Martin IMS a five-year, $26 million contract to implement the system, which Mississippi plans to be using statewide by October 2002. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing half the funding.

John Harwood, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin IMS, said that Lockheed's sale of its IMS Corp. subsidiary to Affiliated Computer Services Inc., announced July 19, will have no effect on the Mississippi contract.

Forty-one states have food stamp EBT systems. Mississippi will join Indiana, Nevada and Virginia in using the systems statewide.

"Recipients have reported that they like the convenience and security of a debit card," said Janice Brooks, executive director of Mississippi's Department of Human Services. "They would no longer have to go to the food stamp issuance office to pick up their food stamps. They would draw their benefits as needed instead of receiving a monthly allotment at a time. If the card is lost or stolen, it can't be used by anyone who doesn't know the [personal identification number], and it can be easily canceled and replaced."

Brooks also said that in addition to the increased convenience and security, a debit card system helps eliminate the embarrassment recipients might feel when using food stamps in public.

Lockheed officials say the system also can prevent fraud.

"As you know, food coupons are very marketable. They are only supposed to be used for specific purposes but are often sold outside the designated arena," said Ray Kamp, vice president of EBT systems at Lockheed Martin IMS. "With the card, users select a four-digit PIN that allows only them to use it. And we have an electronic record of every transaction that takes place. Both of these things make it much harder to conduct fraudulent activity."

Mississippi is considering expanding the system to include child support enforcement, Medicaid and unemployment insurance.

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