By Sylvia Mitchem and Jerry Owens, Program Managers
At its best, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program helps pregnant and post-partum women, as well as children under five years old, get access to healthy food in their communities. Unfortunately, administrative complexities can get in the way of this mission. While all states now use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) to disburse certain government benefits electronically, most WIC programs require participants to appear in person at an office to collect paper checks.
But that’s only the tip of the procedural iceberg. Some states issue separate checks for each recipient and each time period, so a head of household might leave an office with a dozen or more checks – a lot to keep track of over weeks or months. Checks are issued for specific items in specific quantities, and any benefits not redeemed in a single transaction are lost. WIC and non-WIC items must be separated in the checkout line, and WIC transactions often take several times longer than non-WIC transactions – inconvenient both for the cashier and the participant.
Change is coming.
The Healthy Hunger Free Kids act of 2010 mandates that all state WIC programs implement EBT for all WIC benefits by 2020. Only 14 of the nation’s 90 WIC agencies are fully EBT operational. Over the next two years, states will conduct mandatory feasibility studies to determine whether online or offline electronic solutions fit their state best. The challenge is daunting, but necessary.
What will the mandate bring?
- Dramatically increased convenience for participants. All the benefits of electronic payment cards apply – security, theft/loss protection, speed of delivery, etc – plus the simplicity of a single card for multiple participants in a family.
- Big changes behind the scenes for states. USDA has provided guidance for transferable, configurable technology across WIC programs in order to reduce risk, difficulty, and overall time needed for implementation of new systems. Even so, this may be the largest system implementation tackled by WIC agencies in recent memory, so careful planning and precise execution will both be important.
- Streamlined operations for retailers. WIC EBT will mean automatic tracking and processing of these transactions instead of the manual, error-prone, time-consuming process of handling paper at participating grocery stores.
- Reduced administrative costs. While cost reduction is not necessarily the primary goal of this modernization, many states with electronic WIC solutions have seen an overall reduction in spending. Michigan, for example, eliminated 10 million paper vouchers per year and reduced its administrative costs by 27 percent.
As stated above, this mandate will bring positive change to WIC EBT programs. States will experience some upheaval in the next five years, but states that have already implemented WIC EBT, especially online solutions, have seen dramatic improvements. Will your agency be next?