After widespread complaints about welfare fraud, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration appears to be stepping up efforts to reduce abuses of state food benefits, typically distributed through electronic benefit transfer cards, or EBTs.
Staff members at the Department of Transitional Assistance reported 14,431 cases of potential fraud or abuse of food benefits to investigators through the first 10 months of 2013, an 87 percent increase over the same period in 2012, according to a report by Inspector General Glenn A. Cunha released Friday. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) serves about 880,000 individuals.
Department officials attributed most of the increase to a streamlined system to report potential fraud. Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan said her office more than quadrupled the number of investigators last year to root out fraud and tweaked the computer system to make it much easier for staff to file a report when they find something amiss.
In addition, the department now requires case managers to flag cases in which people make suspicious requests for replacement benefit cards, such as asking for four replacement cards in a year, suggesting that they may be selling the cards, instead of using them for food.
Department of Transitional Assistance employees referred 966 cases to investigators after recipients requested a replacement card under circumstances that raised flags. Thousands more cases were referred to investigators because a database search suggested that they might be earning too much money to qualify for benefits, were currently in state prison, or were receiving benefits in other states.
The increase in potential fraud reports came after the agency took heavy fire for not doing enough to make sure that benefits were only going to those who truly needed them.
The former head of the agency, Daniel J. Curley, resigned in early 2013 after Cunha reported that the agency failed to verify recipients’ eligibility, potentially costing the state $25 million a year in unwarranted payments.
A separate 2013 report by State Auditor Suzanne Bump found evidence that the state handed out $18 million in “questionable public assistance benefits” over the past few years, including to more than 1,160 people using a dead person’s Social Security number. Agency officials later said Bump’s number was inflated, because it included duplicates, people who had already been dropped from the welfare rolls, or other cases in which recipients were still alive.
In response, transitional assistance officials announced plans last year to make a series of changes to improve its programs and weed out abuses.
Cunha’s report found that the state still took too long to catch potential fraud. The inspector general found that it took the department an average of 239 days, or nearly eight months, to detect a problem in which a recipient received benefits from two aid programs.
Monahan said her office was aware of delays in detecting double-dippers and is working on a solution. Starting in June, when people apply for benefits for one program, case workers will check to ensure that applicants are not already receiving benefits from another program. They will also be required to check 20 other databases, as well, including a list of prison inmates.