EBT cards for food programs get smarter

ST. LOUIS--To keep pace with the food, nutrition counseling and
medical requirements of needy mothers and children, the Agriculture Department's Women,
Infants and Children program is turning to electronic benefits transfer.

Though WIC funding will increase by nearly 6 percent to $3.7 billion this year, the
number of clients served each month is expected to grow by nearly 9 percent, to 7.5

William Ludwig, administrator of USDA's Food and Consumer Services, said EBT will help
WIC support those clients.

"WIC EBT has not exploded like food stamp EBT over the past two years,"
Ludwig said at a December gathering of federal, state and local WIC officials here.
"Now we must focus on WIC EBT."

Electronic delivery of benefits is evolving differently at WIC. Most food stamp EBT
programs allocate magnetic stripe cards to let recipients access financial benefits
through electronic funds transfer networks. WIC is experimenting with smart cards that use
embedded computer chips to store large amounts of information for use on off-line systems.

But no smart card infrastructure now exists. Someone will have to spend millions to
equip WIC clinics, health care providers and retailers with the necessary hardware.

WIC gives federal grants to states for supplemental food, health care referrals and
nutrition education for low-income pregnant and breast-feeding women and for children less
than 5 years old.

"We have made a lot of progress in the last two years with EBT," Ludwig said.

Much of that progress has been in the Agriculture Department's Food Stamp program,
which will initiate some form of EBT in each state by 2000. Four states are implementing
statewide programs, seven states have started pilot programs and 30 states are in the
planning stages.

In contrast, only Wyoming has fielded a WIC EBT pilot in six counties, and a handful of
states, including three regional consortia, are in the planning stages. Speed could be
essential in getting these programs up and running.

Kathy Tankersley, a computer specialist with the FCS northeast regional office's IT
service, reported rumors that WIC might be mandated to use EBT as early as 1998.

For now, "WIC still operates in a paper delivery world," said Mary Ann Keefe,
FCS deputy administrator for special nutrition programs.

Each month, 25 million nutritional prescriptions and vouchers are produced for
redemption by 46,000 merchants. With most EBT plans being considered, prescriptions for
food items would be stored on smart cards with credit for their purchase.

Electronic readers at grocery store checkouts would confirm the purchases and debit the
cards, which recipients would replenish each month at terminals in WIC offices.

Health and immunization records for mothers and children also could be stored on cards
to be accessed by physicians with readers that interface with their own computers. With
enough memory, data for other government services could be added to each card as well, the
officials said.

Although not widely used commercially in this country, the technology to deliver
services via smart cards already exists. The cards are available at a cost of about $1 per
kilobyte of memory when bought in volume, and that cost would come down as their use
increases, Ludwig said. For EBT, the cards would need from 3K to 10K capacity, depending
on the number of services to be included on one card.

"Technology is not the barrier," said Arthur Burger, a partner with Burger,
Carroll & Associates, the consulting firm in Santa Fe, N.M., hired to develop the
Northern New England Electronic Service Delivery Project.

Burger said the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta may be the watershed event in the
acceptance of smart cards in this country. Automated teller machines there are being
retrofitted to accept smart cards as well as existing magnetic stripe cards.

But if government pioneers the use of the cards nationally for EBT, the question of who
will foot the bill for the new infrastructure remains to be answered, Burger said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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