Friday, October 30, 2009

"You Have to See the Look in Their Eyes"

After 25 years since the first EBT programs were promulgated in Ramsey County, MN and Reading PA, the USA now has all 50 states and 5 territories “wired” for at least the electronic delivery of food stamps, now called SNAP.

Arguably, we could have gotten to this point sooner, cheaper and easier and new indications from Washington D.C., signal an accelerated movement on other benefit programs such as unemployment and WIC. The lessons of the EBT past and the applicability to new programs will be handled by many, but regardless of these efforts, one thing continues to drive the effort: the needs of the recipient.

Is it not the numerous intangible benefits that we need to consider along with the efficiencies, fraud reduction, ease of use, audit capabilities, etc. as we continue to look at new and improve programs and delivery? Here is a scene from around 1989/1990 that illustrates the importance of these programs.

In or around 1989/1990 when many states were just beginning to examine and roll-out programs for food stamp automation and moving to electronic delivery, I set-up
live, user group sessions—one-way mirrors and all. The comments speak for themselves:

“Look, I have a new ATM card like everybody else!”

“I don’t have to dig and find those stamps anymore.”

“I didn’t have to find that SIGN over the one aisle where I could use my stamps.”

“My neighbors don’t look at me funny in the grocer anymore.”

As I heard these and many other comments, all one had to do was see the look in their eyes. One of acceptance, attitudinal shift, and a true feeling of inclusiveness. If we could but bottle these looks and distribute them to the various industry players as we move into more and diverse programs, perhaps a new spirit of working across and breaking down program barriers would develop.

We can only hope to remember to “look for the look in their eyes” before we leap into expensive and potentially unworkable solutions and forgetting one of the key needs of the recipient: removing the Scarlet “W” off their foreheads.

Let's Protect the Government Room Rate

Every year when we plan EBT The Next Generation we reserve a block of rooms for our government-sector delegates. The rate is generally 30% lower than the rate we negotiate for everyone else. Hotels don't like this, and the number of government rooms we can secure at the lower rate is limited.

Managing the room block is more art than science. On one hand we have to block a sufficent number of government rooms when we sign our hotel contract. On the other hand, we don't want to block too many rooms because we pay for those rooms in the block that go unused. It's a delicate balancing act.

Unfortunately, some non-government attendees try to bogart their way in by reserving rooms at the government rate. This means fewer rooms for the government-sector delegates. Our conference hotel in New Orleans this year, the Inter Continental, is trying to manage this problem by asking government delegates to have appropriate documentation with them at time of check in. If you don't have the appropriate documentation you may be denied access to the room at the government rate.

This is to protect the government room rate block for those for whom it was intended.

So if you don't know a Handbook 901 from a cookbook, Mr. Fat Cat Corporate Marketer, save your self the embarrassment in the lobby, and splurge for the corporate rate. Either that or buy us all a round of Hurricanes on at Pat O'Brien's on Sunday night.

Travel safely to the show and drink responsibly while you're there.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Farmers Market Programming at EBT The Next Generation

At the EBT Next Generation conference, we invite you to attend the Farmers Market bonus session Monday, November 9 from 5 to 6 p.m. This session is called a “BONUS” session because it is late after a full day of information BUT we do hope you will come to our session as we promise to provide you with many BONUSES to end your conference day!

There will be three outstanding speakers sharing information with our audience. Ms. Jan Walters, EBT Director from the State of Iowa, has a national reputation for her passionate and strong beliefs on the many benefits farmers’ markets bring to the entire community. Jan will share with our group the most recent helpful information on the various Farmers Market Nutrition programs, including WIC and Senior programs.

Ms. Shari Akin, Senior Account Manager from eFunds Government Solutions has done significant research into the many benefits made available through the 2008 Farm Bill including the vast number of available grants, how to find them, how to apply and WIN grant money with very helpful tips, specific websites and how-to information and these are the topics she will focus upon at the session.

We will also have a special guest at this workshop from one of the most successful markets organizations in the country. Ms. Latifia Carter, Finance Director from the Market Umbrella group which operates Crescent City Farmers Market right in New Orleans will be among our guests. Latifia will share with us some of the many challenges they have experienced in New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, and she will discuss with us some of the extremely creative programs their organization has continued to introduce in their ongoing efforts to build a broad customer base from the community where they accept EBT cards, credit and debit cards.

Latifia will share information about one of their recently completed summer programs called Market Match where seniors and WIC recipients were able to receive a full MATCH, dollar for dollar, of their USDA FMNP and WIC benefits in exchange for taking a fun nutritional education or cooking class! They are measuring the success of this program now in hopes to continue and expand upon it next year!

Many other markets around the US participated in similar programs this past summer. The theme of the Crescent City Farmers Market says so much about them. It is, “Learning, sharing and growing, cultivates community markets that utilize local resources to bolster authentic local traditions. We believe that ambitious social, health, environmental and financial goals are achieved if trust and respect are present. We envision communities of market umbrellas, like flowers in the field, opening all over the world for the public good.

Please consider attending the EBT Next Generation Conference in New Orleans this year. If you are able to join us, please add the extra hour to your day on Monday and participate in this bonus workshop where we promise to make that extra hour worth your time!

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EBT The Next Generation will take place October 8-10 at the Inter-Continental Hotel in New Orleans, La. It will feature:

  • 4 workshops
  • 4 plenary sessions
  • 3 roundtable sessions
  • 10 concurrent sessions
  • 3 bonus sessions
  • 2 social activities

There is still time to register. For more information or to register, click here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

EBT and Healthcare

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has unveiled his own healthcare reform package-and there may be a play for EBT in it.

The highlights of the governor's proposal include:

  • Allowing Minnesotans for the first time to buy health insurance across state lines. As in many states a small number of insurers control a large part of the health insurance market. In Minnesota three insurers issue 80 percent of the policies. Many people think that allowing out-of-state insurers to sell policies in Minnesota will break this triopoly, leading to more competition and lower premiums.
  • Creating an Interstate Health Insurance Compact that would create regulatory standards for selling policies across state lines.
  • Mandating that the state's MinnesotaCare and Medicaid programs price care on quality and cost.

But most interesting to us is the proposal to include EBT in the healthcare reform package. Gov. Pawlenty is proposing creation of a higher-deductible insurance policy that would include a state subsidy deposited to an EBT account. It's unclear whether the existing Minnesota EBT card would be used, or whether the state would create a new healthcare EBT card.

Several states, including New York and Pennsylvania already use the EBT benefits card for Medicaid eligibility determination. But this would be the first time that an EBT card was used to actually transfer benefits to the card holder.

State lawmakers will be asked to consider the governor's healthcare proposal during its 2010 term.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Teaming Up for WIC

WIC has teamed up with Texas grocer H-E-B to publicize the new WIC food package being rolled out in the Lone Star State.

The changes will allow WIC participants to adopt the healthy eating patterns being promoted for everyone by USDA, Amanda Hovis of the Texas Dept. of State Health Services tells Channel 8 in Austin.

She also says that about half of kids born in Texas are on WIC.

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For more information on how states are handling the implementation of the new WIC food package, mark your calendar for Breakout Session 7: Implementing the New WIC Food Package, 10:15 to 11:30 on Tuesday November 10th at EBT The Next Generation. To register for the conference or to check the agenda, click here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

New EBT Program?

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is pushing a program it says will provide relief to beleaguered farmers while a the same time providing additional nutritional assistance for families that lack enough protein in their diets.

And the vehicle proposed for providing that assistance is--electronic benefits transfer.

NASDA wants USDA to take excess pork, dairy and poultry inventories off the market through commodity purchases and make the products available to the public through various feeding programs like school lunch and SNAP.

Under the plan SNAP shoppers would receive additional benefits to purchase meat and dairy products through retail food stores, NASDA president Ed Kee tells the Sussex Countian newspaper of Delaware.

Here's the kicker: SNAP shoppers would receive an extra EBT card to cover the additional allotment, says Mr. Kee, who also serves as the First State's secretary of agriculture.

If NASDA's planned "protein supplement" comes to pass it will mark a milestone--the first time EBT technology has been extended to nutrition programs outside of SNAP and WIC.

That will truly mark the beginning of EBT's Next Generation.

For more information on where EBT is headed, attend this year's EBT The Next Generation conference Nov. 8-10 in New Orleans. For the latest agenda news or to register, click here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

WIC EBT: Online v. Offline

As usual when technology brings advantages to existing processes, there are competing ideas on the best way to implement this technology. In some cases, one direction eventually supersedes the other, think VHS vs. Beta. In other cases, multiple options co-exist, think Microsoft vs. Apple.

Today there are advantages to implementing electronic benefits over paper vouchers for WIC. And there is debate in the WIC community over card technologies: Offline vs. Online. Offline utilizes a smart card, a plastic card with an embedded microchip. These cards store all the information for the participant to obtain benefits and redeem at retailers with POS devices capable of reading the chip.

On the other hand, online utilizes a magnetic stripe card similar to a traditional credit or debit card. These cards access an online database where the participant’s benefits are redeemed through either the retailers existing cash register system or a dedicated terminal.

Both Online and Offline implementations are in operation today. WIC agencies have the opportunity to assess both technologies to decide which is best for their environment. Below are 7 considerations to take into account when evaluating online v. offline technology:

  1. The use of online or offline technology within a State for WIC EBT should be a rational business decision by the State that takes into account the State’s requirements, technology direction, stakeholder input, and a cost/benefit analysis.

  2. FNS does not endorse or require a State to use either online or offline technology. Specifically, FNS has chosen to stay technology neutral and let states decide which technology to use. FNS’ only requirement is that once fully implemented, WIC EBT must by payable through the State’s administrative (NSA) grant (e.g., self-sustaining), and not require additional FNS funding for operations.

  3. Michigan WIC EBT project is no longer a pilot, but is statewide; and has been shown to be cost-effective and sustainable. Consequently there are both online and offline projects that have demonstrated cost-effectiveness and sustainability.

  4. Standards have been developed under the auspices of Accredited Standards Committee X9 for both online and offline WIC EBT. All of the existing WIC EBT projects are following these standards.

  5. Interoperability, meaning that a WIC EBT card issued by one State can be used at a retailer in another State, does not exist for the WIC program. This is because States contract directly with retailers to provide WIC benefits, which is unlike the SNAP (Food Stamp) program where FNS authorizes retailers to accept SNAP benefits.

  6. There are substantial costs in implementing either an online or offline WIC EBT project. The Texas WIC EBT project subsidized software development to support WIC EBT for a number of the retailer front-ends, and paid per lane subsidy for smart card readers for WIC authorized retailers integrating WIC EBT into their existing front-ends. Because of the efforts of Texas WIC, the major POS manufacturers now support offline WIC EBT. The same scenario is being played out for online WIC EBT, where Michigan and Kentucky are providing the leadership and direction in supporting the building of a POS infrastructure for online transactions. Future states implementing WIC EBT will be able to leverage the work done by these pioneer states.

  7. However most retailers chose to utilize a third party processor (TPP) to acquire and route all of their electronic transactions (e.g., credit, debit, SNAP). There is a benefit to these retailers to utilize a TPP and only deal with one settlement and one reconciliation file. It is thought that retailers will chose to route WIC EBT transaction the same as they do SNAP transactions. But this is a business decision, not a requirement. Retailers can chose to route directly to the EBT processor and not pay any fees.

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For a further presentation of online and offline WIC EBT issues, be sure to attend Breakout Session 3: Under the Hood-a Side-by-Side Comparison of WIC EBT Programs Currently Operating, November 9, 3:45 p.m. at the EBT The Next Generation conference in New Orleans. For more information or to register, click here.