Welfare fraud not common in St. Lawrence County, commissioner says
By CRAIG FREILCH
It is inevitable that some Medicaid, SNAP, HEAP or other welfare money is given people who are not eligible, but according to county Department of Social Services Commissioner Chris Rediehs, that is rare and amounts to a tiny faction of the total.
"We have a continuous emphasis on investigating fraud, helping to make sure people are aware of what is happening with investigations," Rediehs said.Cases of suspected welfare fraud are investigated and, when appropriate, are turned over to prosecutors in the district attorney's office, he said.
DSS and prosecutors will discuss ways those accused of fraud can pay back money or impose "disqualification consent agreements." The investigators can then get a judgment from the court, and arrange repayments. Some people might be able to repay right away, or might arrange monthly repayment plans, which can include reduced benefits. In more serious cases, criminal prosecution can be started, and benefits can be cut off.
"Fraud is not acceptable, Rediehs said.
In the last couple of years, DSS has been publicizing their efforts at investigating fraud and the county's attempts to recover benefits obtained wrongfully.
Each month, newspapers, radio and televisions stations receive an accounting of the previous month's arrests and the amount of money the legal system has determined is owed to the programs from which the money came.
Two investigators, one in DSS and another attached to the district attorney's office, look into complaints from the public and discoveries by DSS staff.
Perhaps the most common attempt at fraud is overstating the number of people in a household, which allegedly was the case with a Gouverneur woman arrested in June whom investigators said received $3,099 she shouldn't have.
Other sources of fraud can come from child support collection and enforcement and adult protective services, Rediehs said.
"There have been more referrals in recent years than in the past," the commissioner said. "We've also had more arrests and greater amounts of money recovered. Not all recoveries are successful."
In 2013, judgments against recipients amounted to $378,285. That represents benefits to alleged perpetrators of deliberate fraud, but Rediehs said "Fraud is rare, frankly."
That $378,285 is less than two-tenths of one percent of the total $200 million, or not quite two cents for each $10 in benefits given.
The department doesn't expect to recover all of the money, but much of it can be made up by reductions in benefits or, in the most egregious cases, cutting people off completely.
Any money recovered is returned to the state or federal program from which it was obtained, and not to the county, say Rediehs and County Legislator Joe Lightfoot (R-District 3).
The money is "returned to the program from which it was illegally obtained," Lightfoot said in an email message. The exception is about $400 or $500 a month, on average, recovered from SNAP overpayments that is retained by the county.
"For the most part, clients need benefits and receive the benefits they are entitled to," said Rediehs.
"On relatively rare occasions, there are reports of possible fraud. We do not tolerate fraud and we investigate those referrals. But by and large, we have law-abiding clients not committing fraud."