Most federal benefit programs use electronic payments, GAO reports

But less than half of the programs know what percentage of payments is issued using online methods.

The vast majority of federal benefit programs use electronic payment methods, but less than half of the programs know what percentage of their payments are made electronically, according to a report the Government Accountability Office released on Monday.

More than 80 percent of the 42 federal benefit programs that GAO studied rely on at least one kind of electronic payment method, GAO reported. The most common form of electronic benefit payment is direct deposit into beneficiaries' checking accounts. To a lesser extent, agencies use electronic benefits transfer and electronic payment cards, which store credits that a beneficiary draws on as needed.

Less than half of the programs provided enough data for GAO to determine the percentage of electronic payments that programs made. State governments often dole out payments for federal benefit programs but are not required to provide payment data.

Of the five largest benefit programs that provided data, the Food Stamp program was the only one that reported it issued 100 percent of its $30.2 billion in annual payments electronically. The Social Security Retirement Insurance program reported the largest dollar amount of benefit payments made electronically -- $367.5 billion. That represented 88 percent of the $418.1 billion in benefit payments the program made in fiscal 2006. The Social Security Disability Insurance program reported it issued electronic payments for 77 percent of the $77.8 billion in benefits.

"Generally, lack of resources is one obstacle to implementing electronic payments," said Yvonne Jones, GAO's director of financial markets and community investment. "As our report notes, other obstacles include finding the appropriate electronic payment solution given the nature of the benefit and the characteristics of the benefit recipients. Each program is different; therefore the obstacles to electronic benefits implementation would vary."

GAO recommended the Treasury Department encourage agencies to issue benefits electronically.