By Douglas Moser
---- — Welfare reform on Beacon Hill is moving forward this week with bipartisan support, and the Senate version includes provisions that would create a jobs program to move recipients into the workforce and add photographs to benefit cards.
State Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, introduced legislation earlier this year that would require electronic benefits transfer cards, the state-issued cards that gives recipients access to their benefits similar to using a credit card, to carry the photograph of the beneficiary as a measure to reduce fraud. That idea was incorporated in the Senate proposal unveiled Monday.
“This bill is a comprehensive initiative that closes a lot of the gaps for people that are gaming the system and that create additional opportunities for people who are legitimately using benefits to acquire gainful employment,” O’Connor Ives said, adding that she strongly supports the reforms.
The two proposals in the state Legislature follow two reports that detailed millions of dollars of fraud in the cash payment and food stamp programs, which are state-federal partnerships administered in Massachusetts by the state Department of Transitional Assistance.
The state Senate proposal, along with requiring a photograph on EBT cards, would create a jobs program to try to find applicants employment before they even receive benefits, and to require verification that recipients of benefits are actively searching for work.
“The other reason this makes sense is the goal is to transition people utilizing benefits to the workforce so they can become taxpayers,” O’Connor Ives said.
It also requires the Department of Transitional Assistance to verify Social Security numbers, hire more fraud investigators and report suspicious withdrawals, such as multiple withdrawals in even-dollar amounts and for the full benefit at once. Recipients’ applications and work verification forms would be signed under pains of perjury.
O’Connor Ives plans to file amendments requiring DTA to use the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ database and photography equipment, and to require vendors that accept EBT cards to display the fraud hotline.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Senate Republican leader from Gloucester, said he supported both the Senate and the House proposals, though he plans to offer several amendments today.
“For Senate Republicans, this has been a long fight,” said Tarr, whose district includes Newbury, Rowley and West Newbury. “We’ve tried to achieve reform at every available opportunity and we’re going to persist in doing that until we get these on the governor’s desk and signed into law.”
Among the amendments are requirements to drug test applicants with prior drug arrests or convictions and to increase the use of protective payment for those who fail the drug tests. Protective payments is a system that makes payments directly to utility companies and landlords and limits cash payments to individuals determined to be unable to manage their finances.
Tarr said there are about 500 people in Massachusetts in the protective payment system, though not for failing drug tests.
State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is working on a similar proposal in the House. That version does not include the work training program, however. House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, endorsed Dempsey’s proposal.
Both proposals are in response to two reports highly critical of the oversight of the state’s programs to assist low-income people.
In February, the state Inspector General’s Office released a report on its review of eligibility of public assistance payments to low-income families with children, known as Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
It concluded that mistakes at the Department of Transitional Assistance in eligibility verification — including undisclosed assets like real property and vehicles, undisclosed employment income, and missing verification of residency, participation in work programs, citizenship or immigration status — costs the commonwealth $25 million per year. If verification were done properly, it could result in nearly 9 percent of current recipients losing access to benefits.
Last month, state Auditor Suzanne Bump released a report detailing 1,164 cases where welfare benefits worth nearly $2.4 million continued to flow to enrollees after they were reported deceased or to recipients using a dead person’s Social Security number.
According to the Inspector General’s report, there were 141,232 recipients of welfare payments as of June 2012.