Outsourced food stamp calls probed

MIAMI — Florida lawmakers on Thursday questioned why customer call centers in India are handling questions from food stamp recipients who use a debit-like card to buy groceries.

State Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, requested an investigation why the calls were being outsourced.

Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Judi Spann told The Associated Press that the state paid JPMorgan Chase & Co. to handle a range of services for the Electronic Benefit Transfer program, including customer service and administration of the so-called EBT card.

Calls about food stamp applications are handled in Florida, but questions after a person receives the card are handled at four call centers — two in the U.S. and in two in India.

Lawmakers said the call center jobs should be handled by people in Florida — or at least by centers in the U.S.

“I’m concerned that at the end of the day we’re using taxpayer money to use a call center outside of Florida, outside of the United States,” said State Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami.

“Our money needs to stay within our state and within our country.”

Florida isn’t the only state to use JPMorgan to handle its food stamp benefits administration; Spann said JPMorgan uses a Tampa-based center to run food stamp programs for a total of 28 states.

JPMorgan didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment about the call centers.

JPMorgan did announced Thursday that it posted a first quarter profit of $2.1 billion.

The company has also received $25 billion from the federal financial bailout program.

The debate over outsourcing state food stamp services simmered in the Florida Legislature in 2004, too. That’s when lawmakers called for scrutiny of contracts that hire foreign firms after it was revealed that the Department of Children and Families hired Citicorp Electronic Financial Services at a cost of $14 million a year to replace paper food stamps with the electronic benefit cards.

As part of the contract, Citicorp outsourced some calls to India.

In 2004, JPMorgan bought Citicorp Electronic Financial Services and took over the contract.

That year, as some lawmakers criticized the deal, then-Gov. Jeb Bush defended it in a letter to a state senator saying that banning contractors with foreign workers would be an “expensive exercise in futility.”

“Taken to its logical conclusion, (banning contractors) would require the state to remove the Dell computer from your desk — and the desk of most members of the Florida Senate — because Dell has manufacturing facilities in Brazil, Malaysia and China,” Bush wrote.