May 25, 2018
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Use triage for welfare reform, not fraud patrol

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Mindy Iwaniszek of Bangor writes "wish upon a star" in chalk on the walkway to her Mitchell Street home she shares with her children, Connor and Jordan, in September 2010. Iwaniszek is a recipient of general assistance from the city of Bangor.


A review of the state’s welfare system is reasonable, just as periodic looks at all government programs are needed. But a deeper look at the return on investment of such an endeavor is needed, as is a more effective way to limit poverty assistance costs.

Fraud undoubtedly exists within the broad range of welfare programs the state administers. Some women who claim they have no financial support actually have boyfriends with jobs who live at their residence. Some recipients have off-the-books income which they don’t report.

Fraud of this kind robs all of us. It is reprehensible and indefensible. But its impact on the state budget and tax burden amounts to something like losing a few coins through a hole in your pocket.

Service providers have been proven to overbill state and federal assistance programs or to bill incorrectly. Ending these problems would save a lot more money than going after individual recipients.

Fine-tuning rules, merging electronic databases and requiring more sworn statements with consequences to providing false information could work to catch some welfare fraud.

But if the governor wants to chase down cheats using state workers, he must consider the poor return on investment. State workers spending days doing something close to private detective work to prove someone has income he or she is not claiming will cost more than it will save.

The most effective way to limit welfare spending is to divert those who sign up for the benefits to more appropriate services.

In the cases of disasters like airplane crashes or earthquakes, medical professionals employ a strategy known as triage. The idea is to assess, quickly, the seriousness of the medical problem and to refer the patient to the right treatment process. Those with wounds that are not life-threatening are sent to one area, those who likely to die, with or without treatment, are sent to another, and those for whom immediate attention can make a difference are urgently treated.

When a single mother with little income seeks benefits, a Department of Health and Human Services worker might spend more time ascertaining her circumstances rather than signing her up for every program for which she is eligible.

Is there a need for temporary or permanent housing? Is substance abuse on the part of the father causing her economic plight? If she is provided with child care options, could she then seek employment?

What about education — would she consider getting a GED or vocational training? What about a job — would she consider help with placement or on-the-job training?

The applicant may need physical therapy to become able to work, or substance abuse counseling, or help with food and rent as a transitional step to be able to apply for work.

This is not to suggest that DHHS should try to talk people out of benefits for which they are eligible. But rather than playing “gotcha” with our poor, our disabled, our uneducated and our elderly citizens, assistance might take the form of guiding those able to escape poverty to the right doors.

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