No more check payments, only electronic card for welfare beneficiaries in CNMI

By Lori Lyn Lirio

Participants buy WIC-approved food items using the the electronic benefit transfer system or eWIC card at the Hafa Adai Joeten Garapan. Image © Lori Lyn Lirio

EFFECTIVE last month, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Women, Infant, and Child Program, a welfare scheme for cash challenged families, has started issuing an electronic card, similar to a debit card, as it adopt the Electronic Benefit Transfer system or eWIC which effectively replaced the outdated traditional paper checks as mode of payment for food purchases.

The WIC Program is a federally funded supplemental nutrition and education plan that serves almost 3,200 women, infants, and children each month throughout Saipan, Tinian and Rota.

Program Administrator Erin Angela Camacho said the eWIC gives flexibility to program participants on when to shop for the food items that they should be getting.

“When we had the check system, the participants have to purchase everything on the checks or else you would lose out on some food benefits because there would be nothing else to say that you still have a balance on your checks,” WIC Program Administrator Erin Angela Camacho said, adding “you can only shop for those checks one time.”

With the eWIC, Camacho explained that the participants can go to the store as many times as they can.

“It is very flexible. It allows our participants to shop the way they would normally shop. If they have transportation issue, they can go when they can. They will not lose out the benefits,” she added.

Camacho added that in the old check payment system, the participants may lose some food benefits – for example, cheese if it is not available in the store.

“But now they can get what they need to get and if a WIC-approved food is not available in the store, they can skip it and then get it when it is available.”

The eWIC is like a debit card, but instead of money it is food item that is being taken out from the system.

“They still have to follow the same food guide,” Camacho reminded.

“We give a prescription of food items based on the participants’ needs. It is very specific. The new system will also help the WIC program in terms of monitoring where the participants are shopping, what food they redeem the most, what brand they prefer.

“When we were doing the checks, it would be very hard for us to collate such data. We can also help the vendors or the stores by informing them that participants in their area are shopping for particular items and brands. It is useful for us in terms of getting data in able to meet the participants’ need,” she said.

According to Taffery Lowry, Arizona WIC program manager, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has mandated that all WIC program in the entire country be on eWIC by 2020.

“The CNMI WIC program is ahead of the game and has already met that mandate before the deadline. CNMI is in good position,” Lowry said.

“The CNMI’s WIC program is part of the consortium – Arizona, Guam, CNMI, Navajo nation and American Samoa, we have been able to pull our resources together and put everything in place so that we could do it,” she added.
Lowry said Arizona rolled out the eWIC in October 2017; Guam, last week of March; Navajo nation and American Samoa will roll out at the end of April.

Camacho said they will issue three months benefits, just like in the check system.

“But they will only see one month at a time. Then at midnight of the first day of the month, the new balance will show up.

It will automatically appear. Then would have to go back to WIC clinic to be issued benefits again after three months,” she said.

The WIC will still provide the nutrition education and wellness check up for the participants.

In supplement to the shopping experience of eWIC, Lowry said, Arizona WIC program an application.

“It is called ezwic app. It allows us to check WIC- approved food by scanning the bar code so you can just scan at the store to find out which forWIC-approved item,” Camacho said.

The same app will also show the participants the food list. A food list is a book list of all the WIC list of approved and not approved food.

“In addition, if you attach a card, you can see what your balance is. It will tell you what food left in the item. It is very easy and user-friendly,” she added.

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