In keeping with the Walker administration's distaste for tapping federal funds for state services, the former secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) refused in 2011 to apply for a $8.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant would have helped implement a swipe card system for Wisconsin's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program.
Recipients in Wisconsin currently use paper checks or vouchers to purchase basic grocery items such as bread, fruit, vegetables and milk. Under federal law (PDF), all states must convert to an Electronic Benefit Transfer system by 2020.
Former DHS secretary Dennis Smith told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism at the time that he did not want to apply for the grant because the USDA still needed to work through technological and policy problems. "The most cost-efficient, best way to do this procurement is at the national level," he said.
Suzanne Oehlke, the WIC program director in Portage County and a member of the board of the Wisconsin WIC Association, says it became clear that Smith was not going to pursue EBT implementation during his tenure.
But Smith resigned in February, and Kitty Rhoades, the former deputy secretary, now leads the department. And it appears that the department is changing course.
In notes obtained by Isthmus of a March 27 teleconference, Patti Hauser, state WIC director, informed WIC program directors from around the state that she had been directed by the department two days before to "continue with WIC EBT implementation. Stay tuned!"
One of the program directors, according to the notes, responded with a "yippee."
Several directors who participated in the call also confirmed to Isthmus they understood the state was moving forward on EBT.
But when asked for details, including how the transition to an electronic system would be funded, DHS spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley wrote in an email that she could only confirm that the department was "looking into the possibility of WIC EBT."
Smiley also wrote that she had no "concrete" details to share.
"It is not uncommon for a previously discussed topic to resurface when there are personnel changes," she added. "Because the discussion is currently in the information gathering stage, I am unable to answer your more detailed questions about how any implementation would be funded or timelines. Should that change, I will definitely keep you posted."
Smiley did not respond to a follow-up email when asked to clarify her statement given the information provided WIC program directors in the March 27 teleconference call.
The Women, Infants and Children program provides food, support and health care referrals to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum women and to their children up to five years of age.
Oehlke, the Portage County WIC director, says she and other directors are pleased that Wisconsin is moving forward on implementation of a swipe card system for WIC recipients.
Oehlke says using paper checks and vouchers at grocery stores can be embarrassing for clients.
"It does draw attention to folks," she says. She says it can also be a time-consuming process, frustrating other customers in line. "We aren't patient people," says Oehlke.
Barb Sheldon, the immediate past president of the Wisconsin WIC Association and the WIC program director in Winnebago County, says an electronic system would also be business-friendly.
"My understanding is the major retailers are in favor of this," says Sheldon.
The National WIC Association also supports the switch (PDF) to an electronic purchasing system, adding that it would result in more efficient payments to vendors and help curb fraud since it provides an electronic record of each purchase.
When the state declined to apply for federal funding to implement EBT, Sheldon told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that those funds "may not be available in the future. It may have to fall to the state to pay for this."
Two years later, funding is indeed uncertain.
"WIC dollars are tight now because of sequestration," says Sheldon, referring to the automatic spending cuts triggered by the recent federal budget. Though some funding has been restored, Sheldon says there is word that some of those same funds might be rescinded.
If forced to choose between providing food to clients and building an EBT system, the choice would be clear, says Sheldon: "It is more important to serve our clients with the basics than to take money out to create a new system."
[Editor's note: After this story was published, Stephanie Smiley sent the following message: "The Department directed staff to look at the previous plans to implement EBT, however, recommendations and details about possibilities for implementation have not yet been presented to Secretary-Elect Kitty Rhoades at this time. As such, she has not made a decision regarding WIC EBT implementation."]