Audit finds improper public-aid payouts

The Baltimore Sun

Inadequate checks of public assistance rolls may have allowed thousands of Marylanders to improperly receive temporary cash assistance and food stamps, according to a legislative audit released yesterday.

The state Department of Human Resources has acknowledged the auditors' major findings, which didn't include the amount of money involved, and has enacted software fixes and new procedures in an attempt to better review eligibility.

More than 800,000 people receive assistance from the department's Family Investment Administration.

The agency is required to routinely compare its database against deaths, lists of inmates in local detention centers and prisons and the public assistance rolls in other states. But because of a quirk in the agency's software, auditors found, the periodic checks were comparing the external databases to only 65,000 names, not the full 800,000.

This summer, auditors requested that the department run an expanded check against three of the databases it examines: the Bureau of Vital Statistics list of deaths and separate lists of inmate populations in the state Division of Correction and the Baltimore City Detention Center.

While the agency's original checks yielded 129 matches - that is, people whose names appeared both on the welfare rolls and on one of those lists - a revised check using the full roster of those receiving assistance revealed 2,531 matches.

It's unclear whether all matches were improperly receiving benefits.

The auditors also found that 52,000 aid recipients had not listed valid Social Security numbers, as required by federal and state rules, making eligibility checks more difficult to perform. In addition, computer checks for eligibility were not regularly performed, the auditors wrote.

In its written response to the audit, the Department of Human Resources said it has already implemented several procedures to make the compliance checks more regular and more effective. For example, the agency now produces regular reports of clients with missing or invalid Social Security numbers and distributes them to local health departments and social service agencies for follow-up. The agency also wrote that the software problem limiting the scope of the eligibility checks has been resolved.

Human Resources spokesman Norris West said the agency could not yet estimate how many people had received benefits improperly as a result of the inadequate checks. But he said that once the agency identifies someone who received payments they were not eligible for, he or she is asked to reimburse the state. West said the department gets "a high degree of cooperation in most cases."

"We do agree there were problems," West said. "We are glad that we are putting in place procedures to make sure that only individuals who are eligible for benefits are receiving them."

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