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March 20. 2012 9:08PM

NH Speaker seeks to combat welfare fraud

CONCORD — People on welfare and those applying for state assistance would have their identities, assets and income verified through public databases under a welfare fraud protection program proposed by House Speaker William O'Brien and others in House leadership.

O'Brien told House Finance Committee members Tuesday that his new verification program to cross-check the recipients' information against public databases would help root out the welfare fraud like that discovered in other states totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

But state Health and Human Services officials said they already have a program that is more effective than the one he proposes.

Jennifer Jones, an attorney in the Health and Human Services Department, said the agency already does many of the data searches found in O'Brien's proposal. “The department has found that much of the electronic data mined is not the end point but the beginning point,” she said.

She said that in fiscal year 2011, less than 3,000 cases of potential fraud were referred to the department, and slightly less than 2,000 required an investigation.

Jones said there were 48 convictions and 34 cases referred to county attorneys for prosecution and about 70 more were handled administratively. She put fraud at about 1 or 2 percent and said the total cost of the program is about $70 million.

In his testimony, O'Brien told the committee, “Welfare fraud — it seems to be the white whale of government.”

He said his amendment to House Bill 1658 would save taxpayer resources for those who are truly needy and send the message to anyone interested in committing welfare fraud that New Hampshire is not the place to go.

Under O'Brien's proposal, a person on the Temporary Assistance to Needy Family program and someone applying to the program would have their information cross checked against federal data bases such as Social Security, Internal Revenue Service, Citizen and Immigration Services and Veterans Administration, and state agencies like Department of Employment Security, Department of Corrections and housing and licensing information.

Under the program, if a discrepancy were found, the person would be notified in writing and must respond within 10 days. If a recipient or applicant contests Health and Human Services' decision ending, lowering or denying a person's benefits, a hearing would be held.

“Ultimately, it will restore confidence in government among our friends and neighbors as we bring integrity to the system,” O'Brien said. “Hopefully, it will also help to remove the stigma among those receiving public assistance that they are not somehow gaming the system at the expense of the taxpayers.”

Sarah Mattson, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, told the committee the proposal would cause delays for people seeking assistance and denials based on incorrect information. The delays could violate federal law, she said and “you may well deny assistance to people who need it very much.”

She said the issue is how much money will be saved and how much it will cost the department to verify the information collected.

Jones said additional personnel would be needed to review all the information required under O'Brien's amendment, she said.

O'Brien's proposal also caps a recipient's benefit for the duration of the person's stay on the program

“Welfare should be a safety net,” O'Brien said. “We need to make sure a safety net does not become a trampoline.”

The original bill would have capped a recipient's monthly benefit if the mother had an additional child.

A number of people testified against the provision capping benefits saying it would punish children for the behavior of adults.

MaryLou Beaver, chairman of the Family Assistance Advisory Council, told the committee, “No one in this room believes anyone wants to be poor. No one in this room believes that a child living in poverty is doing well.”

Child poverty is increasing in New Hampshire, she said, and children are not better off than they were 10 years ago.

The bill was also opposed by the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which is concerned it could increase local welfare costs.

The association's counsel, Cordell Johnson, said his organization is concerned that if a TANF recipient's benefit does not increase, the person will come to cities and towns for assistance.

O'Brien told the committee he had told Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas he would like the department to accept an offer to do a free pilot search in return for legislative help with the Chase Home settlement that requires Health and Human Services to pay vendors about $4 million.

O'Brien said the information from the pilot search should be available by the end of the week. He predicted the results would be “eye-popping.”

The Finance Committee was expected to approve O'Brien's proposal and send it to the full House for a vote next week.

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