Pa. Welfare Chief Eyes Fraud, Welfare-to-work
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Rooting out people who get services illegally and finding ways to help others get off public aid and into jobs will be the initial focus of the Corbett administration’s efforts to rein in the rising cost of Pennsylvania’s social safety net, state senators were told Wednesday.
Gary Alexander, Gov. Tom Corbett’s nominee to head the Department of Public Welfare, also contended that the administration of the Republican governor’s predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell, practiced gross mismanagement.
Former top Rendell aides said such statements prove that Corbett administration officials are either lying to conceal their true aims to slash health care or don’t know what they’re talking about.
Alexander, who will manage many of Pennsylvania’s services for the poor, elderly and disabled, told senators in a packed Appropriations Committee hearing that the mantra for case workers under Rendell was “when in doubt, give it out” or “close your eyes and authorize” – statements he repeated to a House committee later Wednesday.
“That is stopping,” Alexander told senators. “I told the workers, ‘That should happen no more.’”
The former Rendell aides pointed out that a federal audit found low error rates in Pennsylvania’s benefits programs under Rendell. They also said the Rendell administration trained welfare-eligibility workers to properly check things like death certificates, birth certificates, immigration status and the Social Security database, reducing the need for the fraud investigations that Corbett and Alexander say were lacking under Rendell.
“Tom Corbett knows this,” former Rendell policy adviser Donna Cooper said. “There’s no way they’re that stupid, or we’re all in trouble.”
Alexander, who until January held a similar job in Rhode Island, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate to run the department, which handles more than 40 percent of all state and federal money that travels through the hands of Pennsylvania’s state government.
Alexander has received some compliments for his work to improve Rhode Island’s services, although other state officials there question his claims about saving money.
Rising demand in Pennsylvania for social services during the recession and the spiraling cost of health care has driven up the agency’s budget by about 70 percent in a decade. One in six Pennsylvanians is now covered by Medicaid, the 45-year-old federal program created to help states pay for medical and long-term care for the poor and disabled.
Under Corbett’s 2011-12 spending plan given to the Legislature three weeks ago, the department’s budget would remain roughly level, according to House Democrats.
Alexander acknowledged that Corbett’s budget proposal does not include a plan to reform the way Pennsylvania’s social safety net is administered. But he said he is working on a comprehensive plan to help improve services and rein in costs he calls unsustainable.
“This is going to happen, we can guarantee it,” he told the House Appropriations Committee hearing later in the day.
Proposed cuts to countylevel aid programs and hospitals that treat the poor drew bipartisan criticism at the Senate hearing, as both Republican and Democratic senators gave Alexander an earful.
Hospital advocates have warned of longer emergency room waits and, possibly, the closure of some small rural hospital as a result of the cuts. But Alexander responded that hospitals are getting an adequate increase.
For hours, Alexander answered questions before the House and Senate committees. At some points, he criticized the federal government for creating rules that he said prevent states from saving money and improving public health. At other times, he raised the suggestion of massive waste in public welfare programs.
Alexander said department staff members have told him that illegal immigrants and busloads from out of state have come looking for benefits in Pennsylvania. And he said the agency hasn’t been following federal law – a reference, his spokesman later explained, to a waiver first issued under the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Ridge to allow legal immigrants to receive benefits sooner than a five-year waiting period.
He said he found fraudulent work force development contracts, but he did not elaborate.
Alexander also did not elaborate on how he will move more people receiving services into jobs, although he said Rhode Island reduced the number of its cash-assistance recipients by 30 percent over two years by imposing stricter job-search requirements than exist in Pennsylvania.