O'Brien: Welfare fraud 'widespread'

Last modified: 4/6/2012 12:00:00 AM
As he predicted last month, House Speaker Bill O'Brien yesterday called the results of a private analysis 'eye-opening' by shedding light on potential welfare fraud in New Hampshire.

'What this report confirms is that the problem is fairly widespread and also that taxpayers are paying a lot of money for people who should not be collecting welfare,' said O'Brien, flanked by fellow Republicans at a Concord press conference.

But Terry Smith, director of the state Division of Family Assistance, isn't sure what exactly the free analysis by private vendor LexisNexis has turned up.

'Their findings are simply cases that we should look into more,' Smith said. 'We have to investigate the degree to which the data sets are valid.'

While introducing a bill last month to crack down on welfare fraud, O'Brien said he had requested the state Department of Health and Human Services take up a free offer to run the state's welfare populations through a more extensive battery of identity checks.

'Nothing - and I repeat, nothing - gets folks more angry and fired up than to see someone else get taxpayer funded public assistance when that person isn't entitled to it,' O'Brien said yesterday.

The report made available by O'Brien's office found 9.15 percent of 24,355 people receiving food stamps in New Hampshire have a primary address that is out-of-state, along with 6.14 percent of 86,386 Medicaid recipients. Fifty-six people on Medicaid are dead, including a woman who died in November 1983, and two are incarcerated, the report found. O'Brien said 2,800 people with assets of $400,000 or more are on Medicaid, including a woman who owns a $1.2 million property and a man who drives a Cadillac.

O'Brien acknowledged that not all the findings may be instances of welfare fraud, due to clerical errors or other reasons, but 'even if a small fraction of those who were flagged are actual fraud, say 5 percent, it would save New Hampshire taxpayers millions.'

State health Commissioner Nick Toumpas said it's hard to know whether deploying state resources to further investigate the findings would lead to big savings, since officials haven't been able to 'scrub the data' to see how much could be actual fraud.

'You always have to look at where we're going to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of investigating this type of thing,' Toumpas said. 'To be able to put a dollar figure towards it is pretty premature.'

Smith said his office has only seen the numbers provided by LexisNexis but not the caseloads, which he said are expensive to purchase from the company.

'We asked LexisNexis if they had national percentages on the reliability of their data. They told us 'no,' ' Smith said. 'Their testing mechanism has not yet been tested.'

Smith said pricey property and fancy cars don't necessarily mean someone is defrauding public assistance.

'They paid for it but they may have lost their job,' he said. 'When they come to us for assistance, we don't count the value of their car.'

Dead people can sometimes show up as receiving public assistance, Smith said, because there is up to a 20-day window to allow nursing homes or other agencies to report deaths and the state to take the recipients off the rolls. Incarcerated people could also fall into the same reporting lag, or be jailed for a couple days without requiring termination of their welfare grant. And out-of-state addresses aren't a sure bet either, he said.

'We have a lot of seniors who go to Florida every winter and they come back here for the summer,' Smith said.

O'Brien's bill, which passed the House last week, requires welfare applicants to be checked against a more extensive collection of publicly available databases to verify aspects of their legal status and financial situation. His proposal had initially included a section preventing welfare recipients from receiving an increase in their grant for any reason, but that language was removed from the bill before passage.

'What does it say about New Hampshire that it can't bring integrity to its public assistance program, both for reasons of good governance and for reasons of eventual cost savings,' O'Brien said. 'This is a task that we can't walk away from.'

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)

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