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Head of state welfare agency details reforms aimed at preventing fraud

The new director of the embattled Department of Transitional Assistance outlined initiatives Tuesday aimed at preventing welfare fraud, including tougher requirements for those who request replacement electronic bank transfer cards and more thorough checks of recipient lists.

Stacey Monahan, who was named director last week after serving as interim director since the resignation of Daniel Curley in February, appeared before a legislative panel and pledged to continue recently implemented reforms and introduce new ones.

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The agency has endured months of heavy criticism. Last month, a report by Auditor Suzanne Bump showed between July 2010 and April 2012, 1,160 people receiving benefits were either dead or were using a deceased person’s Social Security number, at a cost of $2.4 million.

The report also noted $15.6 million in suspicious transactions from electronic benefit cards. The agency began taking some steps before the recent uproar.

The department now compares its recipient lists with information from various other agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the Department of Correction, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education more frequently to prevent fraud, she said.

Some lists, including those from the Department of Correction, are now being checked against recipient lists every week, instead of every quarter or every month. Comparing recipient lists with the Department of Correction every week ensures that recipients in jail do not receive benefits.

“It is vital to the credibility of the department that the public and the Legislature know that we are doing all we can to enforce the laws on the books,” she said at a hearing by the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight.

Since December, the department has charged a $5 fee for replacement EBT cards, and those seeking a fourth replacement card must now meet with local department officials to ensure there is a legitimate need to issue a new card.

There has been a 62 percent drop in requests for a fourth replacement card from September 2012 to April 2013, compared to the same period the year before, she said.

The accounting firm Ernst & Young was hired to conduct an external audit of the department. A report is due by the end of the month, said department spokesman Matt Kitsos.

Many committee members commended Monahan for aggressively tackling her mandate for reform. Representative Thomas A. Golden Jr. thanked Monahan and her staff for “starting the process of bringing integrity back to the system.”

Lawmakers are also acting to tighten welfare oversight.

On Monday, Senate leaders unveiled an overhaul plan that would require that applicants prove they have sought employment before receiving cash benefits. Under the proposal, welfare recipients would need to provide the Department of Transitional Assistance with proof of their job search before receiving cash assistance.

Adult recipients would also be required to use EBT cards with their photograph on them.

Monahan, speaking after the hearing, said the department wanted to judge legislation by whether it increases opportunities for getting people out of poverty and tightens regulations. “Overwhelmingly, we felt positively about the legislation,” she said.

The Senate is set to take up the bill Thursday.

Javier Panzar can be reached at javier.panzar@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.
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