SNAP error rate 6.3 percent, not 3.66 percent
The national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit payment error rate — a measure of both overpayments and underpayments made by all states nationwide — in fiscal year 2017 was 6.3 percent, the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service said June 28 in the first announcement about the error rate in three years.
This is an apparent increase over the 3.66 percent reported for fiscal year 2014, but FNS said the agency believes the higher rate is largely the result of the improved measurement procedures implemented to improve the accuracy of the data, rather than an actual increase in improper payments.
The error rate is not a statement of fraud or abuse, Brandon Lipps, the acting deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, told reporters in a telephone news conference.
In 2014, USDA identified inconsistencies in quality control data that raised concerns about the presence of statistical bias in the system across the country, the department said.
“A thorough examination of each state’s quality control system and subsequent significant process improvement efforts have resulted in the more accurate payment error rates presented today,” USDA said.
Due to the data quality issues uncovered in FNS’s reviews, the agency declined to report a national payment error rate for fiscal years 2015 or 2016 until the problems could be resolved and the agency could ensure the data presented were accurate.
USDA implemented new oversight controls to correct data quality issues and prevent them from reoccurring, which included providing training to state and federal staff, updating guidance and manuals, and working with states to update their procedures to ensure consistency with federal guidelines.
“The majority of improper payments are due to human errors,” Lipps said.
Improper payments occur when the state certifies someone who is not eligible; denies someone who is eligible; or calculates the benefit amount incorrectly such that the individual receives too much or too little benefits.
This can occur for a variety of reasons including a data entry error, or improper information provided by the recipient. Approximately 60 percent of errors are a result of actions by state agencies, while 40 percent are caused by program participants.
Under federal law, each state agency is responsible for monitoring its administration of SNAP, including payment accuracy. As part of the quality control process, states collectively review about 50,000 cases each year. FNS, which administers the program at the federal level, then double checks a sampling of those cases to ensure payment accuracy and compliance with program eligibility requirements. FNS then uses a formula to determine a national error rate.
The 53 states and territories varied dramatically in their error rates, but there did not seem to be any regional patterns. The highest error rate was in Delaware (13.95 percent). The District of Columbia, Maine, Michigan and Rhode Island error rates were above 10 percent.
But the error rate for nearby Massachusetts was only 4.4 and for New York state 5.53 percent.
The lowest error rate was in South Dakota (1.21 percent). But the error rate in nearby Iowa was 9.61 percent.
Asked how the SNAP error rate compared with other USDA programs, FNS officials said they did not know the error rates in other programs.