State Representative Joe Hackett represents Radnor voters in Ward 3, Ward 6 and the first precinct of Ward 4. Below is an editorial submitted to Radnor Patch by Hackett.
Prior to becoming a police officer, I worked as a federal operative uncovering fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars related to public benefits. Since that early experience investigating and uncovering fraud in public assistance, this is an issue that has always been a top priority for me.
Many people have been hard hit by the current economy, and welfare fraud deprives taxpayer dollars from going to the people that are truly in need. As the legislature works to develop a balanced budget without raising taxes, fraud in the welfare system means less money is available for public assistance, as well as other priorities such as basic education and higher education.
At the same time, this type of fraud has an unfortunate and undeserved impact on the public’s perception of those who require public assistance to put food on their family’s tables or provide healthcare to their children. Those who are truly in need and who are working to provide a better life for their families and children are also victims of this fraud. They should not be painted with a broad brush because of the actions of some individuals who seek to game the system.
Welfare fraud in Pennsylvania gained headlines again recently when the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) announced that it had identified more than 650 cases of fraud involving Electronic Benefits Transfer cards totaling nearly $1 million. These were people who were living outside of Pennsylvania but collecting state public assistance benefits. These cards are similar to debit cards and give welfare recipients access to certain benefits, such as food stamps and medical assistance.
The issue first came to light in a report released last year by state Auditor General Jack Wagner. The Auditor General’s Office found that card holders made $5.2 million in out-of-state purchases or cash withdrawals in May 2010 alone. Yet at the time of the investigation during the Rendell Administration, Wagner’s state auditors were refused permission by DPW to examine records that detailed what the 94,947 transactions were for or analyze their legality.
I was shocked that a state agency would refuse the state’s own auditors access to records that could reveal fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars. In my view, DPW was essentially shielding these people and made it impossible to determine whether any of the $5.2 million in out-of-state transactions were invalid or illegal.
Given my background in this area, I immediately called on the Department of Public Welfare to cooperate with the auditor general’s investigation into Pennsylvanians with Electronic Benefits Transfer cards.
Although belated, I am pleased that a more complete investigation is moving forward and people are going to be held accountable for fraud committed against taxpayers. Unfortunately, these 650 people living out-of-state and collecting benefits at the expense of Pennsylvania taxpayers may only be the tip of the iceberg because the information released so far only includes individuals who made purchases with the EBT cards in states that are not adjacent to Pennsylvania. It is my understanding that investigators plan to expand the scope to purchases made in neighboring states. When they do, I expect we will uncover more fraud.
Sadly, waste and abuse at the Department of Public Welfare is nothing new. In order to address some of the types of fraud we are seeing, last year the legislature adopted reform legislation that now requires welfare recipients with previous drug felony convictions to submit to random drug tests.
We also put in place new checks and balances to help ensure an applicant’s income is at the accurate level to be eligible for benefits. We also took action to eliminate “venue shopping” by applicants, a practice in which some unscrupulous individuals would cross county lines to collect assistance from counties with more generous benefits. The legislature also put in place reforms of the fraud-filled special allowance program, reforms that are projected to reduce costs by as much as 25 percent.
Unfortunately, this is an area that will require constant monitoring and vigilance. But as we work to implement necessary reforms, it is important that we not allow the actions of some unscrupulous individuals to impact our perception of our neediest individuals and families who rely on the safety net of public assistance.
- State Representative Joe Hackett
Representative Joe Hackett represents the 161st Legislative District of Pennsylvania, which includes portions of Aston, Brookhaven Marple, Nether Providence, Newtown, Radnor, Ridley, Rutledge, Springfield, Swarthmore, and Upper Providence.