State officials won’t disclose the names or locations of Kentucky grocery stores accused of fraud in the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program.
Citing a U.S Department of Agriculture regulation, the state Health and Family Services Cabinet restricts the disclosure of businesses that violate the WIC program’s rules even though the names of customers who make fraudulent purchases using WIC money become public record.
The program was the center of a legislative committee meeting on Thursday. Rep. Steve Riggs, a Louisville Democrat, said it was unusual that WIC vendors’ identities were protected while violations in every other industry were public record.
“Daycares, coal mines, there’s all kinds of fines and punishments but none of that is kept confidential. Do you know of any other business besides the WIC vendor in which we keep their name confidential,” Riggs said.
About 120,000 women, infants and children in Kentucky currently use the WIC program, which is funded by the federal government and available for households that earn less than $44,000 per year.
Kentucky’s 743 WIC-approved vendors receive on-site visits every two years and have to meet requirements on nutritional value, pricing and other matters.
As first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, at least 16 stores in Kentucky received WIC disqualification letters in 2014. In response to an open records request, the newspaper received records of the investigations into the stores with addresses and identifying information redacted.
The reasons a business might be censured include overcharging WIC recipients or let customers purchase liquor, cigarettes, expired food or other unauthorized products using WIC money.
If the agency finds a vendor guilty of fraudulent activity, they can be suspended or removed from the WIC program.
Sen. Danny Carroll, a Paducah Republican, said more of a deterrent is needed to keep vendors from committing fraud.
“I feel like that if it’s to that extent then they should be turned over to law enforcement for possible prosecution just like it would for the recipient of the benefit if they violate the law,” Carroll said.
David Lovely, a staff attorney for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said that by protecting the identity of businesses, the state is following orders from the USDA, which funds the WIC program.
“Given the fact that they’re 100 percent funding it, it’s just not something that we as an agency are going to ignore their wishes,” Lovely said.
Riggs said Kentucky needs to join states that ignore the USDA regulation.
“It just doesn’t make sense and I know you’re relying on ‘this is what the Feds tell you to do, but other states don’t agree with that interpretation,” Riggs.
According to the Herald-Leader, Massachusetts occasionally publishes the names of WIC violators online.