“They [DTA officials] should have realized this was a problem because, it had only been a couple of years before when they, in-fact, had employees who were taking blank cards, loading them with benefits and then using the cards themselves, or giving them to friends who were using them.” ~MA State Auditor Suzanne Bump
AUDIO OF INTERVIEW WITH STATE AUDITOR SUZANNE BUMP
June 1, 2013
Massachusetts State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office released an audit of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (the state’s welfare agency).
Among other things, Bump’s audit found 1,164 dead people receiving welfare benefits, and 30,000 blank EBT cards (welfare cash cards) completely unaccounted for.
Instead of embracing Bump’s objective financial report, Governor Patrick has chosen to quibble over some of the more meaningless numbers released in the audit.
Valley Patriot Publisher Tom Duggan interviewed Auditor Bump on his WCAP radio program called Paying Attention on Saturday June 1st. Here is what Bump had to say about the audit and the controversy.
What is a State Auditor and what is your function in State Government?
This is an office that has existed since 1850, when the voters passed an initiative calling for an auditor to follow the money being spent by government. What we do when we follow the money [is], we look at state agencies policies and procedures, makes sure they are following their own internal controls, and we test whether they have the sufficient controls in place to prevent the waste, abuse, and fraud of the public’s money.
This office is to uphold the public interests and public trust. We go into [state] agencies and ask, what are your policies and procedures, test whether they are following them, ask whether they are efficient and then we publicize the results.
Trouble at DTA
Over a year ago, we started our audit of the Department of Transitional Assistance. Under our mandate, we have to audit some aspects of every department’s activities on a three years basis. So, it was time to audit DTA and what we focus on, like we did with our Medicaid audit of Mass Health last fall, we focused on their policies of determining eligibility.
So, an applicant comes in, they apply for assistance, what are the policies that case workers follow in order to certify someone is eligible or benefits?
And then, we also look at the controls they had in place over the EBT cards. Are they physically keeping the EBT cards safe so people can’t steal the cards, and work with someone in the agency to load them up with benefits and use them? And are they making use of all the tools they have to track EBT transactions, and find out if benefits are being misused or abused.
Those are three major element of an audit.
What we found [at DTA] was that they were not using all the tools they had, particularly with regard the Social Security database to determine whether folks are who they say they are.
They couldn’t account for 30,000 blank EBT cards.
And in some offices that we visited, they were pretty much out in the open and they weren’t making use of all the technological tools that they have themselves, already at their disposal, to detect suspicious patterns of EBT card use.
What is a blank EBT card
When you apply for benefits and you get approved, the staff at the regional office has the EBT cards there and they are blank, it’s like a blank debit card. They are supposed to be kept in a safe and secure location. Only authorized people are supposed to have access to them. When they get delivered it’s like an armored car delivery, you know, they are supposed to keep track of what comes in and what goes out.
Well, 30,000 [blank EBT] cards couldn’t be accounted for according to their own records.
And in some locations they were not properly stored. You certainly shouldn’t allow applicants to have access to them, but in at least one location they were not only accessible to the general staff, but by applicants who were coming in and going through interviews to find out if they were eligible.
They [DTA officials] should have realized this was a problem because, it had only been a couple of years before when they, in-fact, had employees who were taking blank cards, loading them with benefits and then using the cards themselves, or giving them to friends who were using them.
As recently as 2010 they had people who were prosecuted for this.
So this should have been a control that was upper most in their mind, that needed to be followed up on all the time, and they were lax about that. So that was the deficiency.
Audits Make government work better.
I will tell you, all of the deficiencies that we found in our audit, are things that they [the Department of Transitional Assistance officials] themselves acknowledged before this audit was complete. The final product was put out this week. Months ago, we met with the new commissioner and to tell her what we found. All of the recommendations we made to her was contained in her 100 day plan.
An audit is a snapshot in time it is not a snapshot of what is going on today in that office, but it’s a snapshot of what was going on at the time we did the audit. So, they are already working on fixes and in some cases already completely implemented fixes that we recommended, but this gives you a snapshot of how bad things were before.
Did Deval’s Patrick’s administration embrace this and say ‘we are going to fix it, so more needy people can get benefits?’
It’s very curious to say they did not.
They did not embrace it and say ‘we recognize that, and here’s our plan, and we are fixing these things,’ which would have been an appropriate response. They have a good story to tell. Instead, they are saying all our numbers are wrong.
All we did was match their numbers with the Social Security database, and specifically the list that Social Security provides on whose [Social Security] numbers have been put away because the person is deceased.
When we did the match, what we found was that there were heads of households who: according to Social Security system, were dead. [We also found] dependents whose guardians were getting benefits. Those dependents were either dead or using a dead person’s Social Security number.
So, that suggests that the system that has been used by the agency of just accepting people at their word when they come in and apply, and say this is my Social Security number, rather than checking it against the Social Security database, is not a good practice. It’s a practice that allows for abuse and fraud. And it’s a practice they are changing and fixing.
We didn’t get pushback on the findings that we had [at DTA] when we matched the heads of household and the Social Security death list, they didn’t give us pushback on that.
What they did give us pushback on was, they said that our number of 178 dependents whose Social Security numbers were either dead or people using dead Social Security numbers, they [DTA} said that was wrong, but they wouldn’t allow us to test how it is that they reached their conclusions about it.
And without our ability to test it, we can’t accept it because that’s the whole essence of auditing. You get the data and you have to verify it.
What seemed to have happened with this 178, they reviewed their files months after the snapshot was taken, they had updated their files, but at the time we took that snapshot there were 178.
They had a good story to tell it’s unfortunate that we are in the weeds about details that truly are irrelevant to them fixing the problem, which they are in the process of doing.
Every 3 years we look at some aspect of an agency. Consider how big some of these agencies are and how many facets of their operation they have policies for. So, when we decide what we are going to audit we look at risk. Where is the greatest chance that a system could fail or public money would be wasted or public services would not be delivered the way they are supposed to be?
Then we look also at relevance. What is happening now in that agency that is a public concern. What’s an initiative that hadn’t been examined before?
It [The EBT card system] hadn’t been looked at before, there’s a lot of money involved and that’s why we looked at it.
ILLEGLAS AND NON RESIDENTS GETTING BENEFITS
A few months ago when we did put out or audit of Mass Health, the Medicaid program, we found that in general that, just as in DTA they were relying on people at the stations and they were taking people’s words as to their Social Security numbers, they were also taking their word as to where they lived. So, we found that there were folks who had come in on medical visas from other countries, that were applying for and being approved for Mass Health coverage, as well as folks who didn’t belong here in the first place, as well as those from out of state because they weren’t checking it… even when there was conflicting information in the file that indicated that they were not from Massachusetts.
So, just as in the case of DTA, and this audit as the result of that audit of a few months ago of Mass Health, they are now tracking income through the IRS and The department of Revenue databases. They are asking for verifications of residency. They are reacting in all the appropriate ways to our audit findings, which is the whole point of an audit. It’s not to make agencies look stupid, it’s to make government work better. It’s to uncover problems that could lead to fraud or abuse and fix them so that the tax payers are benefitting and so do the people who desperately, legitimately need these public assistance programs. That’s where my background, as you would say, my bleeding heart liberalism comes in. I want these programs to work. I want people to have confidence in them. I want the public to support them, and I know that public trust gets eroded when problems such as we have found at DTA and at Mass Health, are just left to fester.
WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE?
First of all, the agency heads are.
I appreciate that people want to lay this directly at the feet of the governor, you can say, just as at my agency that’s where the buck stops. But the reality is, Governor Patrick cannot know about internal controls in every agencies operations. I can tell you having worked for him that he does have high standards and he cares deeply about this.
That said, the folks at DTA apparently didn’t get the message, or they weren’t heeding the message that we have standards in government, and they were not using all of the tools that they had.
He [Governor Patrick] has to rely on their representations of the work being done there and in those bureaucracies … it’s a difficult job. Fraud fighting has to be reinstated as a priority, the new folks in that agency are absolutely doing that. I will leave it to the legislature as to what policies to make, but operationally they are being improved.