Some States Put Premium on Curbing Welfare Fraud but Federal Cutbacks Give Less Funding to Prevention

Article excerpt

SEVEN residents of Boston's North Shore were arrested last week on charges of illegally collecting nearly $100,000 in government welfare benefits. They were turned in by a concerned citizen.

It was just one action indicating that states across the nation are stepping up efforts to crack down on welfare fraud. At the same time, the federal government is cutting back on funds contributed to state welfare fraud programs.

Welfare fraud "ought to be priority No. 1," says Ray Riddle, president of the United Council on Welfare Fraud, a national group of welfare fraud investigators. "Rather than cut our funding from 75 percent to 50 percent, they {the federal government} ought to increase us to 80 percent or 100 percent."

Despite the federal cutback, North Carolina will not back down in its pursuit of welfare cheats, says Mr. Riddle, who also manages the Program Integrity Branch of the Department of Social Services in Raleigh.

Massachusetts, too, is trying to send a message that welfare fraud will not be tolerated.

The recent arrests "emphasize the importance of anonymous tips from the public," says Glen Fealy, director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Investigations (BSI).

"The government must do everything in its power to discourage and punish welfare cheats and also find more effective means of collecting repayment for fraud when it occurs," said Gov. William Weld (R) of Mass., while introducing legislation last week to curb welfare fraud. "We're not cracking down on welfare recipients, we're cracking down on the people who shouldn't be welfare recipients who are grabbing the money."

The Weld administration's proposed legislation includes attaching wages of people who have been convicted of fraud and have stopped repaying the money owed, as well as collection from state tax refunds. A new hotline number, set up for citizens to report suspected fraud, handled 135 calls in its first month. In addition, the governor has implemented a "front-end" fraud detection program, designed to weed out fraudulent applications.

Although there is not an "epidemic" in Massachusetts, "any amount of fraud is too much," says Public Welfare Commissioner Joseph Gallant. "That's the bottom line as far as we're concerned. Our whole program is geared toward zero-tolerance."

Massachusetts' front-end detection program is administered by the Department of Public Welfare and BSI; BSI investigators, assigned to particular welfare offices, review applications that caseworkers suspect are fraudulent. …