O'Brien Pushes Welfare Fraud Crackdown

With House deadlines looming, Speaker Bill O'Brien has introduced legislation that would make significant changes to the state's welfare programs.

O'Brien believes the state must do more to fight fraud in the system.

The measure also caps a family's aid even if that family's need grows.

It's far from clear whether the Speaker's plan would save the state money.

GORENSTEIN: There’s one sweeping theme to House Speaker Bill O’Brien’s welfare proposal, which includes Food Stamps and several other cash programs.

O'BRIEN: “We want to make sure that when people come on welfare that they have enough to live, but that they don’t start to get comfortable.”

GORENSTEIN: Welfare, O’Brien told the House Finance Committee, is a safety net...not a trampoline.

Lately, he says he’s become concerned over recent news reports.

O'BRIEN: “A woman in Detroit who won the lottery for over $1 million dollars and was still collecting food stamps and other public assistance. We heard about another woman in Philadelphia who was on the system collecting benefits, but who had passed away in the early 80’s. There was a former NFL player who was collecting welfare in Alabama while he was also working as a teacher.”

GORENSTEIN: O’Brien concedes...these are anecdotes.

But O’Brien wants to not only save the state money, but tackle the corrosive effect welfare fraud is having on the perception of government.

Taxpayers, he said, don’t want to support people who game the system.

O’Brien’s bill directs Health and Human Services to hire a private company to install tougher controls...controls he says that will ensure greater integrity.

O'BRIEN: “They will test such things as whether individuals are alive, incarcerated, living in New Hampshire, legal US residents...and don’t possess a vacation home in Florida.”

JENNIFER JONES: “We do many of the things that this legislation calls for already.”

GORENSTEIN: That’s HHS’s Jennifer Jones.

The department is not taking a position on the bill.

HHS officials estimate welfare fraud –within the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program - runs about 2% of the caseload.

State Director Terry Smith says he’d love to limit fraud.

But it’s got to be cost effective.

TERRY SMITH: “The issue is that it’s going to cost money for us to do it. and then the question becomes do we see enough in savings to make up for those new expenses.”

GORENSTEIN: By Smith’s math, if the state eliminated ALL TANF fraud, the state would save a little more than half a million dollars.

He doubts the department could even hire an outside firm for that much money.

If there’s a growing problem of fraud in New Hampshire, that’s news to state officials.

Since the Recession began in June 2008, TANF caseloads are down 8%.

HHS statistics show the average monthly rent outstrips the average cash assistant grant.

This legislation goes beyond fraud.

Advocates see it the way Speaker O’Brien described it - a philosophical bill aimed at making life so difficult for people they don’t want to be on assistance.

But Sarah Matson, with New Hampshire Legal Assistance says this philosophy is cruel.

SARAH MATSON: “This is impoverishing families with children, some of the poorest most vulnerable people in our state for behavior that is completely beyond their control.”

GORENSTEIN: Matson’s talking about a provision in the bill that would cap how much money a family can receive on TANF.

For example, right now, if a mother dies, and the child moves in with the father, the father can receive extra money.

Under this plan, there’d be no extra money.

Most statehouse observers expect the full House to pass some variation of this plan to the Senate next week.

But this year so far, the Senate has shown little patience for House bills that fall outside their goal of improving New Hampshire’s economic climate.