Restoring Confidence in the Department of Public Welfare

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By Rep. Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster)

Recently I reintroduced legislation, House Bill 1638, to prevent future fraud in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) because our state is wasting millions of dollars it literally does not have on fraud within our welfare system.

The auditor general first broke the news of the flaws in the LIHEAP program in 2007. I introduced an identical measure to House Bill 1638 at that time. The arrest of 18 people, 16 of whom were government employees, in Philadelphia last week further demonstrates the fact that something must be done to prevent this type of scheme from happening ever again.

While I commend the Department of Public Welfare, which has oversight of the LIHEAP program, for its recent efforts to protect against fraud, I still believe that legislation is necessary to permanently solve the problem.

The department claims it is going to hire a LIHEAP manager and crosscheck Social Security numbers on applications, but there is more that should be done to ensure that this type of fraud does not happen again. For instance, my legislation would require that photo identification be issued to LIHEAP recipients. This would discourage the anonymous claims that were a cornerstone of the alleged scheme in Philadelphia, and it would make it more difficult to simply fabricate personal information.

House Bill 1638 would require the department to provide a written report to the governor, General Assembly and state inspector general. This report would also be made available to the public. What administrators of programs like LIHEAP need is public accountability. The alleged fraud in Philadelphia was perpetrated by managers and supervisors, as well as low-level employees, which makes evident the need for public reporting.

Case in point, as soon as the investigation into the program began, LIHEAP claims in Philadelphia dropped from $936,608 to $454,956. Why? Because those allegedly involved realized that someone was finally watching them.

Additionally, if we adopt these measures into law, rather than allowing them to remain as department procedure or even regulation, we can ensure that they are being followed. Any department can put out a press release claiming it is going to implement new departmental procedures, but having those procedures codified makes the department accountable for their implementation.

Finally, the department should have already been administering this program so that this type of racket could not happen. Its leaders have failed in their stewardship of public funds, so why should we trust them to do a better job now? Legislative oversight is essential to hindering future schemes to defraud the public trust. I personally cannot place my confidence in a department that has exhibited a complete lack of competence in administering taxpayer dollars.

The Department of Public Welfare has proven that it cannot manage programs like LIHEAP on its own. We must enact legislation like House Bill 1638 to truly thwart welfare fraud. This is why I believe it is finally time the House act on the legislation I have introduced each of the last two sessions.

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