Thank goodness for the Fraud Investigation Unit at DHHS

Readers familiar with this blog will understand my title is completely snarkastic. I’m no fan of the overall performance of our health and human services department.

The latest DHHS news came from the Fraud Investigation and Recovery Unit (FIRU) making a show of its latest statistics for 2016 last week .

Maybe it was an attempt to undermine a report about Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients, maybe it was an attempt to justify FIRU’s expensive existence, maybe it was an attempt to try to make Maine DHHS look like it’s being successful at something — who knows?

For whatever reason, a department known for being behind on investigations of non-critical things like the abuse and neglect of disabled adults wants to brag about its pursuit of SNAP fraud.

In what sounded like a game of show, but only half tell, the state announced:

This year to date the fraud investigation and recovery unit investigators have presented 46 cases to the attorney general’s office totaling over $1 million dollars in theft allegations.  Fraud investigator Tom Roth

Key word? Allegations. Talking about allegations packs a far bigger political punch than talking about the before, during, and after of these allegations. 2015’s statistics exemplify my point.

In 2015, FIRU referred 21 such cases to federal officials and local district attorneys along with 105 such cases to the AG’s office. Those 105 allegations resulted in 23 successful prosecutions by the state.

How many complaints came into FIRU to generate those 23 successful prosecutions? Over 2700, some 1500+ from the general public.

Freely translated:  A number of us Mainers need to get a life because our obsession with judging the lives of others is resulting in a ginormous waste of bureaucratic and law enforcement time. Seriously.

I’m not saying we should turn a blind eye to fraud, nor should we eliminate FIRU. People blatantly abusing the system are in need of an intervention in their lives. However, SNAP successfully serves 189,000 Mainers, 63 percent of whom are households with children. 43 percent are elderly and/or disabled, and 41 percent are working families.

To focus so much of DHHS energy and resources on the infinitesimally small percentage of people abusing social service programs is disingenuous and a huge disservice to all the honorable Mainers out there struggling to keep adequate nutrition on the table. This focus does make for flashy fodder for news cycles, though.

A headline from early 2016 reads:  Maine DHHS says it uncovered $1.2 million in welfare fraud last year. The headline makes it sound like that was a done deal, like those 105 AG referrals were in the bag. I don’t have time to look, but I wonder if there were any splashy headlines about only 23 of those cases being successfully prosecuted.

I also wonder if there were any big headlines about the $26 million in improper billing uncovered by the AG’s office since 2014. That’s an average of $6.5 million a year, a more significant problem than recipient fraud, but it feels like recipients get all the negative attention.

Where are all the photos and storylines related to that $26 million? Granted, improper billing errors aren’t necessarily indicative of a crime, but $26 million suggests a problem in need of at least as much attention as allegations of welfare fraud.

In the interest of disclosure and establishing credibility to back my snarkiness, I have received SNAP benefits in the past. I’ve taken great offense to the LePage administration’s perceptions of sound leadership and policy where Maine’s most vulnerable are concerned. These perceptions are reflected in hard realities like our ongoing addiction epidemic and our rise in ranking for food insecurity.

Using an EBT card in the checkout aisle is no working parent’s proudest moment. I’m sure it’s worse now that LePage has whipped his followers into the kind of frenzy that can result in thousands of mostly un-prosecuted fraud complaints.

I wish I had time to do sufficient research to establish a cost/benefit analysis of FIRU, especially since Governor LePage increased the number of investigators at an annual cost of $700,000. Now the AG’s office says it needs more staff to handle the volume of referrals from FIRU. Maybe the overall equation balances out in favor of Maine taxpayers, but it seems hard to believe.

In the case of the SNAP program, those benefits are 100 percent federally funded. I’m sure the state must get a cut, but the bulk of recouped SNAP money goes right back to the federal government.

Thank goodness, too, because the former Secretary of Health and Human Services ran up a pretty big air transportation bill so the feds really need the money … 

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.