VIDEO

Second secret video targets Maine welfare system deficiencies

Posted Aug. 18, 2011, at 5:01 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 18, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Another video produced by self-proclaimed citizen journalist James O’Keefe has been released in an attempt to highlight flaws in Maine’s system for determining eligibility for certain entitlement benefits.

The video, posted Thursday on YouTube, is set in a Department of Health and Human Services office in Portland. It features the same actor who starred in a similar video set in a Biddeford DHHS office.

In the newest video, the actor, who identifies himself as Sean Murphy, meets with a DHHS employee to fill out applications for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid. He asks how to qualify for services even though he has access to a large bank account. He never receives any benefits and there is no video evidence that any fraud took place.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center, in partnership with Americans For Prosperity-Maine, held a press conference last week to unveil footage of the Biddeford video, which it claimed contained “explosive evidence to potential fraud and abuse.”

There was no press conference this week in connection with the second video, but the policy center did release a statement about its content.

MHPC Chief Executive Officer Lance Dutson said the second video shows a well-trained and knowledgeable employee, but he criticized her efficiency in dealing with the applicant.

“This latest tape gives us a better perspective of the welfare intake process,” Dutson said. “The Portland employee was far more in command of the intake process than a DHHS employee at the Biddeford office shown in an earlier video, which helps us examine the welfare process more closely.”

Still, Dutson said the second video affirms his belief that the system’s intake culture is too focused on getting people into the system rather than turning people away. He also said the interview demonstrated fraud vulnerability and highlighted the need for the state to institute a “secret shopper” program to improve employee performance.

O’Keefe and his national organization, Project Veritas, have conducted a series of undercover investigations into Medicaid fraud across the country. Many, however, have criticized his tactics as ethically questionable.

On Thursday, O’Keefe posted on his Twitter account the following message: “Finished another video. I predict egg on the faces of journalists up there.”

Jesse Graham, executive director of the Maine People’s Alliance, however, said the second video filmed in Maine is even less persuasive than the first.

“The worst they do is to take the DHHS employee to task for giving the fake applicant basic information about the MaineCare system that they claim ‘could be used as part of future attempts to defraud the system,’” Graham said.

Graham further called out the video’s producers and supporters for wasting the time of state workers during these “stings.”

“O’Keefe and the Maine Heritage Policy Center should be ashamed of themselves for wasting the time of public employees all the way from the DHHS office in Biddeford to the governor himself,” Graham said.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew on Thursday said that the worker featured in the Portland video did many things correctly including “repeatedly stating the need for the person to declare income.”

“Her program knowledge is outstanding,” Mayhew’s statement continued. “However, we continue to acknowledge the need for more standardized scripting and improved training, which was identified long before the O’Keefe videos were released.”

Last week, LePage thanked the individuals who recorded the first video but concluded that it failed to show fraud. The governor did, however, say that the video showed poor customer service and poor time management on the part of the DHHS staffer in the Biddeford office.

“Although I do not believe the video shows an employee willfully allowing abuse of the welfare system, I do believe it is an example of how poor training can open the door to fraud and abuse,” LePage said of the Biddeford video. “We must protect the limited resources for those who are truly in need and shutdown the benefits for those abusing the system.”

The governor did not comment on the latest video.

LePage has made welfare reform one of his signature issues and has vowed to improve the system by eliminating fraud. Recently, he c reated the Fraud and Abuse Prevention Team to intensify its efforts to deter abuse. The nine-member group, made up of members of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Attorney General, has two charges: to identify fraud before it happens and to make sure all cases of potentially illegal activity are properly investigated.

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