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SSI fraud ignored for years in spite of warnings, Congress is told

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Despite nearly a decade of warnings, the Social Security Administration has done little to stop non-U.S. citizens who get millions of dollars in illegal or questionable disability payments, government investigators reported yesterday.

In one of a series of troubling reports to Congress, the General Accounting Office concluded that Social Security has failed to hire enough bilingual caseworkers or investigators to stop "middlemen" from steering aliens into the agency's biggest program for the disabled.

The report confirmed findings of a nine-month investigation by The Sun that documented numerous instances of fraud by people who coached noncitizens to fake disabilities and then steered them into the program.

Known as Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, the $25 billion program was set up two decades ago to provide a basic living allowance to poor Americans who are too old, handicapped or disabled to work.

But a loophole written into the law by Congress allows certain immigrants to qualify as soon as they set foot on U.S. soil.

The result has been a sharp increase in the number of foreign-born people receiving SSI benefits. Today, more than 700,000 aliens are drawing checks worth $4 billion a year. That is double the number just five years ago, making aliens one of the fastest growing segments of SSI.

Social Security has long argued that since most recipients -- almost 70 percent -- are too old to work, fraudulent claims based on faked disabilities represent a small fraction of the total.

But the GAO found that the agency has awarded monthly checks "to unknown numbers of non-English-speaking individuals who are actually ineligible for benefits. These awards are very costly to the government, accounting in each case for thousands of dollars in improper payments over the years."

In one example, the GAO cited the case of a middleman working in the Seattle area who had helped 240 immigrants obtain $7 million in benefits by coaching them on which symptoms to report to government caseworkers.

The problem is not new. It began in the late 1980s when Social Security failed to respond to a sharp rise in immigration by hiring more bilingual caseworkers.

As the tide continued to rise, the agency came to depend on free-lance interpreters to help immigrants who can't speak English through the applications process -- in the face of mounting evidence that many were falsifying claims for their clients.

The GAO found that one California field office handled applications from 127 people speaking 19 languages in just one day. In another field office, 176 applicants were all brought in by one interpreter.

Finally, once an alien is on the benefits rolls, the GAO found, the likelihood of fraud ever being detected is slim because Social Security has only about 400 agents to police the 6.3 million people receiving money and rarely checks up on them after they start getting payments.

Confronted over the years with evidence of a growing problem among non-English-speaking applicants, the agency did little to bring it under control, the GAO found.

No warnings

The GAO discovered that even when the agency suspects a specific person of fraud, it does not issue any warnings to its field offices to be on the lookout for him. Thus, a questionable middleman who is uncovered by one field office need only move his operation to another town and resume business as usual.

Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater said in a letter to the GAO that the agency aims to solve that problem by starting a nationwide computer data base of interpreters and by hiring more bilingual workers.

But the GAO report said the database won't go on-line for years. And the agency still lets applicants hire their own interpreters, even if a bilingual caseworker is available to talk to them, and lets applicants apply at the field office of their choice.

Thus, Hispanic aliens in a place such as Camden, N.J. -- where the agency employs three Spanish-speaking caseworkers -- can go to nearby Bridgeton, where there are none, and submit their applications through their own interpreters.

"If they're looking to dodge us, the agency's rules say they can," said Frank Comito, who represents the 900 Social Security caseworkers in Local 2369 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"Things are so bad in Bridgeton that we're letting applicants fill out their forms at a Hispanic community center. That's been going on for more than a year now."

Further, GAO found that Social Security has been hamstrung by budget cuts from Congress that have kept it from cooperating with state law enforcement agencies, even when they uncover fraud by middlemen and unscrupulous medical professionals.

"I'm not at all convinced that it's a high priority," said San Martin, a senior investigator for the California Attorney General's Office. "And the little bit of enforcement they are doing could hardly be called a deterrent."

His office recently indicted two Orange County psychotherapists for allegedly defrauding the state of $100,000 by charging the California Medicaid program for treating poor immigrants for questionable mental problems. A sampling of 6,000 clients found that the doctors had also processed about half for SSI benefits.

Yet Social Security has yet to launch its own investigation into the case, Mr. Martin said.

"We have gotten no assistance from them, and very little interest from them," he said. "What winds up happening is that you have known SSI fraud that is going unprosecuted because Social Security isn't cooperating with the state law enforcement agencies that are closest to the problem."

States get problem

It's a common complaint, he said, because an applicant who qualifies for SSI also automatically qualifies for state-run food stamps and Medicaid insurance, leaving the states to clean up Social Security's mess.

Now, Congress is stepping in with more drastic measures.

The massive welfare reform plan adopted by the House of Representatives in March would bar nearly three-quarters of aliens on the SSI rolls from getting benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The only noncitizens who would remain eligible would be refugees, legal immigrants who are at least 75 years old, and veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

A similar plan authored by Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas is to be taken up by the Senate.

But the underlying problem with handling alien applicants -- the shortage of bilingual caseworkers -- is not likely to be solved soon.

At a time when the agency is being told to cut its work force, said Social Security spokesman Phil Gambino, hiring enough new workers "would be unfeasible."

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