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After days of claims and counterclaims about fraud in the state's welfare system, Gov. Deval Patrick weighed in Friday, as lawmakers move toward reform — reform some advocates worry could hurt the state's neediest residents.
Welfare reform has been simmering on Beacon Hill since January, when the state inspector general detailed potential fraud of up to $25 million. The issue jumped to the front-burner this week, when state Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report also citing millions of dollars in potential fraud.
Her office's audit (PDF) included a headline-grabbing contention that the welfare agency sent benefits worth more than $2 million to people who were dead — or to people misusing dead people's Social Security numbers.
Patrick said Friday he was infuriated. "Nobody should be gaming the system and any one instance of that is just that: It's infuriating to the general public and to me,” he said.
But he's pushing back, too. The Department of Transitional Assistance, Patrick said, reviewed almost 200 cases forwarded by the auditor, and found that many of them represented people who were indeed alive and eligible for benefits.
“It's a serious problem without being exaggerated,” he said. “But I think the other part that... is that 99.9 percent of the money that taxpayers spend on DTA benefits are properly spent, and that's good."
Administration officials say they are working hard to tighten oversight. Bump credits those efforts, but stands by her findings. Whatever the facts about fraud in the system prove to be, Beacon Hill seems ready to move.
"There's a lot of gaming of the system going on, and we're going to put out a comprehensive reform bill,” said Senate President Therese Murray, who has been working on legislation for months.
Murray said she's frustrated that many regulations from the 1990s are not being enforced. Requirements for work, for education and restrictions on the time beneficiaries can stay on the rolls have routinely been waived, Murray said.
"In 1995 we cut the generational dependence on welfare when we did the welfare reform bill,” she said. “There were people who were on [welfare] for generations and generations and that was their way of life. We stopped that and we have to revisit that constantly because it's happening again."
Murray acknowledged the recession hit the welfare budget and reduced staff, even as enrollees nearly doubled. But, she said, loopholes should be closed and fraud prevention beefed up. She wants photo IDs on electronic benefit cards.
Republicans have pushed that idea for years. Rep. Shaunna O'Connell, a Taunton Republican who grew up in subsidized housing, is skeptical that Democrats are serious about reform.
"This is obscene abuse in this program and fraud,” O’Connell said. “And we've had enough lip service and window dressing and we need reforms and we need them now.”
All this ferment on Beacon Hill is making advocates for the poor wary.
Patricia Baker, of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said the welfare department doesn't have enough money or staff to effectively carry out all of its duties. She’s worried that new verification requirements could make it harder for the legitimately needy to get help.
"I think it's become unfortunately popular to ... to punish low-income people for the mere fact of their poverty," Baker said.
A hearing on photo IDs for benefit cards and other reforms is expected next week.
This program aired on May 31, 2013.
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