By Tim Leeds
Gary & Leo's IGA is about to start accepting plastic food stamps.
The Havre store is one of the pilot stores in the Montana Department of Health and Human Services' electronic benefit transfer program, in which food stamp clients can receive their benefits electronically with a debit card.
Hill and Silver Bow are the pilot counties for the program.
"It should be a very slick system," said Tracy Job, manager of Gary & Leo's. "I'm looking forward to it."
The store has the necessary computer programs to start processing the cards, called Montana access cards, in March, Job said. A purchase using the cards will proceed as it has in the past, with the store's registers separating out which items are eligible for food stamps. The person will use the debit card rather than paper coupons.
Food stamp participants will be trained in using the electronic system, which has a personal identification number for each card. The participants will be able to use an interactive telephone system to select their own PIN, check the balance remaining on their food stamp account, and review the last 10 transactions the card was used for.
Mick Robinson of DPHHS said that since Feb. 11 new applicants for food stamps in the pilot counties have been sent the access cards instead of coupons. Starting March 1, all clients in those counties will be sent the cards. Any store eligible to accept food stamps can participate in the program, although participation is voluntary. Most businesses are electing to participate, Robinson said.
The program will actually be a little more expensive for the state than using coupons, Robinson said, but there will be advantages for the stores and clients.
There will be significant savings for the stores, he said. Eliminating the need to deposit the coupons and await payment from the state and having automatic electronic transfer will be much better, he said.
Food stamp recipients will be able to avoid the embarrasment of paying for purchases with coupons.
"The stigma of using food stamps will be addressed," Robinson said. "I think that's one of the big advantages for customers."
The owner of the card will have to enter the PIN at each purchase, Robinson said. That should provide good security to protect the user, he said. If a card is lost, the customer can call in to cancel the old card and have a new card issued.
Once the pilot program is completed, DPHHS will divide the state into three sections to continue implementing the program. DPHHS will implement the program in the center section of Montana in April, and in the eastern and western sections in May and June.
Many other states already have electronic systems for food stamps, Robinson said, and the federal government is requiring all states to have a system in place by September.