According to numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Mississippi Department of Human Services has the fourth lowest payment error rate nationally with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The low numbers could be a mirage, overshadowed by the state’s use of a consultant whose practices have gotten other states in trouble with the U.S. Department of Justice, which has settled with three states to repay $17 million in unearned bonuses for low error rates. DHS hired the consultant to improve error rates with the SNAP program and the firm earned $424,629 from taxpayers in contracts from 2011 to 2017.

Mississippi’s payment error rate was 2.43 percent on overpayments and 0.49 percent for a total error rate of 2.92. South Dakota was first with a total error rate of 1.04 percent, Idaho was second (2.13 percent) and Louisiana (2.7 percent) was third. The national error rate average was 6.3 percent and only 23 states equaled or were less than the national average.

The error rate in 2017 was 3.29, up from 2014 when the error rate was 1.16 (the USDA didn’t release complete error rate data for all state and territories in 2015 and 2016). States can receive monetary bonuses for low error rates and penalties for higher ones.

Mississippi received nearly $6 million in bonuses while utilizing advice from Julie Osnes Consulting from 2011 until 2017 and could have to pay the money back. The DHS paid her firm $246,270 for their final contract. Osnes agreed on June 18 to pay the U.S. $751,571 to resolve allegations of violations of the False Claims Act by causing states to submit false quality control data.

The way the errors are calculated is a multi-step process. State agencies first randomly select a sample of households that participate in the SNAP program, which adds up to about 50,000 nationally. The state agency staff interview participants and conducted a detailed review of the household’s eligibility. The states then calculate the number of errors. 

The USDA does a check of about 25,000 of the reviewed SNAP cases to assure that the state agency followed proper policy. The state agency then corrects the errors and the USDA analyzes the data to arrive at the national and state payment error rates.

According to the USDA, 60 percent of the errors are with a state agency. These errors can include errors in data entry or application processing or failure to do matching for citizenship, work status or other criteria for eligibility. Forty percent of the errors, according to the USDA, derive from recipients failing to report earnings, assets or expenses.

Taxpayers spent more than $728 million in Mississippi for SNAP for fiscal year 2019. 

Mississippi wouldn’t be the first state to run afoul with the DOJ for using Osnes as a consultant. Three states — Alaska, Virginia and Wisconsin — that employed Osnes as a consultant reached settlements with the DOJ in 2018. Virginia and Wisconsin paid $7 million apiece, while Alaska had to pay back $2.5 million. 

An investigation by the Department of Justice found that Osnes — who was paid by the state of Wisconsin to consult on their SNAP program — used “several improper and biased quality control practices” to lower its error rate and qualify for bonuses to which it hadn’t earned. 

According to an archive of Osnes’ now-shuttered website, Mississippi received $1.18 million in bonuses for fiscal 2013 for having the lowest payment error rate and $2.7 million in fiscal 2012 for lowest case and procedural error rates. 

Mississippi’s first contract with Osnes was a two-year pact that began on October 1, 2011. She received $62,307 for her services in fiscal 2012. In fiscal 2013, her contract netted her consultancy firm $17,900

The state and Osnes reached an agreement on a new contract that started on February 2, 2014 and the firm received $53,152 for its work.

DHS continued the deal despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General releasing a report on September 2015 that decried the use of consultants such as Osnes to help with quality control over household eligibility.

The state and Osnes entered another contract starting April 1, 2015 and ended on February 1, 2016, with Osnes paid $45,000 for her services. The department and Osnes reached terms on an extension that started when the first expired. The last payment of $29,541 was made on June 1, 2017 and no more subsequent payments were made, according to an examination of state records.

State/TerritoryOver paymentsUnder paymentsPayment error rates
South Dakota0.90.131.04
Idaho1.830.32.13
Louisiana2.170.532.7
Mississippi2.430.492.92
Vermont3.350.213.56
Tennessee3.580.614.19
Wyoming3.151.064.21
Florida3.90.494.39
Massachusetts3.21.264.46
Hawaii3.670.814.48
North Dakota3.331.184.52
Alabama3.930.664.59
Nebraska4.050.744.79
Texas3.371.484.84
North Carolina3.741.234.97
South Carolina4.70.575.27
Colorado4.041.395.43
Arkansas4.770.835.6
New Hampshire4.441.185.61
Kansas4.831.035.86
Nevada5.220.665.88
Utah5.210.765.97
Arizona4.951.045.99
New Jersey4.231.936.16
Alaska4.661.716.37
Pennsylvania5.261.246.51
Washington5.860.736.59
West Virginia5.61.156.75
Virgin Islands5.851.026.87
Oklahoma5.861.126.98
Kentucky6.420.767.17
Indiana6.240.947.18
California5.961.37.25
Maryland6.221.17.32
Ohio6.031.437.46
New York6.80.927.72
Wisconsin6.651.287.94
New Mexico6.861.878.72
Connecticut6.722.058.77
Oregon8.150.718.86
Missouri7.751.329.07
Guam6.822.289.09
Georgia7.391.729.11
Minnesota6.762.369.13
Illinois7.891.729.61
Virginia7.891.739.62
Montana7.971.79.68
Iowa8.911.1110.02
Michigan8.912.6211.53
Maine9.842.4612.3
Delaware11.951.2913.24
Rhode Island12.311.513.81
District of Columbia13.692.6516.33