By Rep. Steve Mentzer (R-Lititz)
With the 2017-18 state budget sent to the governor’s desk it is worth noting that more than $11 billion of Pennsylvania’s total annual spending is spent on welfare.
That is more than one-third of the entire state budget and most of the spending is a federal mandate. About 75 percent of welfare spending is federal, with the remainder contributed by states; however, states administer the programs and therefore have?the capacity to constrain welfare growth, but rarely do so. However, some improvements are being made.
Federal and state governments spent $1.02 trillion on welfare in 2014?—?an increase of $274 billion, or 36 percent, since 2003 after adjusting for inflation. At the federal level, the welfare bureaucracy spans numerous agencies and includes more than 80 different means-tested aid programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income Americans. These programs range from public housing and food stamps to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Americans are a generous people, and we have always been willing to help those who have, for one reason or another, fallen upon difficult times. But we also object to those who apply and draw such public assistance fraudulently. When that happens, they are literally stealing from the citizens of Pennsylvania and taking away benefits from those who actually need them.
So naturally taxpayers are upset when they read that state officials recently charged 68 people with committing nearly $270,000 in welfare fraud.
And those are just the people who were caught -in May of this year.
Inspector General Bruce R. Beemer said the cases include accusations of illegal trafficking in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that was uncovered during a drug investigation by Harrisburg Police.
The inspector general’s office filed 25 criminal cases of fraudulently receiving public assistance, a felony of the third degree; 34 criminal cases of fraudulently receiving public assistance, a misdemeanor of the first degree; and eight criminal cases of fraudulently receiving public assistance, a misdemeanor of the second degree. 25+34+8=67, says 68 above.
Many constituents will look at this story and ask ‘why wasn’t this couple’s ban on getting benefits longer?’ ‘Or, why weren’t they permanently banned from applying for benefits?’
And that is the crux of the problem - preventing welfare fraud and abuse is a very difficult proposition because the rules are largely set by the federal government, but the benefits are distributed by state. Because of this, states are in the best position to find and catch the fraud, but they can’t do too much about it. For example Pennsylvania cannot kick people who commit fraud off of welfare, only suspend their benefits for a limited amount of time.
And, as long as an electronic benefits food stamp card is used at least twice a year, federal rules mandate that money keeps getting deposited into the account, no questions asked. This is a slight improvement Congress was able to get passed during the Obama presidency, and even that change faced objections by the Obama Administration. Previously, the requirement was that the card needed to only be used once per year.
Despite these roadblocks to real reform, we have made progress on the state level.
In 2011 and 2012, the Pennsylvania Legislature, voted for a series of reforms aimed at reducing the instances of fraud in our welfare system.
As part of these reforms, for the first time in Pennsylvania history the administration created an office – the Office of Program Integrity – which reports directly to the Secretary of the Department of Public Welfare with the mission of identifying and investigating welfare fraud. DHS now?
While there were initial critics of these reforms, they are working.
In February 2014, the Department of Public Welfare reported these reforms and others have DHS again?saved Pennsylvania taxpayers $2 billion staving off welfare fraud, waste and abuse.
About $338 million of these savings were the results of investigations into suspicious applications for benefits, recovering overpayments of benefits and savings from weeding out people who were not truly qualified to receive benefits.
Another $476 million in savings came from reviewing improper use of electronic benefit transfer cards, audit recoveries and cross-checking federal and state income and benefits.
Most of the savings, $1.1 billion, came from stopping fraud before it begins and making sure Medicaid is the payer of last resort.
By working together, we know we can do more, and we are.