New food stamp cards off to rocky debut

CLEVELAND - Calvin Wilkinson didn't receive his new food stamp card.

"I know a lot of other people who haven't gotten their cards either," said Wilkinson, of Cleveland. The state began issuing new magnetic-stripe cards in February.

But while many Ohio households have activated the new easier-to-use cards, others report not getting the cards or had trouble getting them activated.

The cards went into effect March 27, and 448,190 of the 588,519 cards mailed to Ohio households had been activated as of Thursday, said Jon Allen, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. In that time, he said, 1.6 million transactions had been performed with the cards.

But in northeast Ohio's Summit, Lorain and Lake counties, officials said they have received complaints from people who never received cards or had difficulty using an automated phone-in process required to activate them.

"There's been a lot of frustration out there," said Art Iacofano, director of the Lake County Department of Job and Family Services. "We've done our best to help them."

The state's toll-free hot line received 320,000 calls to activate the cards on March 27, Allen said, and about 27 percent opted out of the automated system to request personal help.

He said the high number of calls, paired with the high demand for personal assistance, led to long waits and that the problem is being resolved with additional phone lines and operators.

"We know how important this is to the individual and we're trying to work with them," Allen said.

The state also is trying to find 12,280 people whose cards were returned as undeliverable.

The new magnetic-strip cards are similar to bank or credit cards and can be used in credit card readers. They replace the "smart cards" that hold computer chips and required special readers that stood apart at grocery store checkouts, and weren't installed in every line.

The swipe cards are expected to save the state $23 million annually. They cost 89 cents per case per month, versus the $4.74 cost of the smart card, which was the most expensive distribution system in the nation.

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