By Neal Kedzie

State Senator

      Depending on whom you talk to, Wisconsin is either praised or criticized for the number of programs it offers to aid those in need. Over the years, Wisconsin has provided funding to help pay for health care, housing, food, utilities and child care to people who may be of lesser means, or have cognitive or physical disabilities which may prevent them from earning enough to cover their cost of living expenses. Such programs were created with the intent to help those who are truly in need and ensure a quality of life that they may not be able to provide for themselves.

      Over time though, many of these programs fall short of their intent, and are often ripe for fraud and abuse by those who would exploit them for their own personal gain. Not only do those individuals effectively steal from the taxpayers who fund these programs, they also steal from the people who may legitimately need such services in order to simply survive. An adage is floating around which says too many people are in the wagon, but not enough are pulling.  That may be true, as new information released earlier this year exposed such fraud and abuse in Wisconsin’s FoodShare Program.

      FoodShare Wisconsin is the successor to the state’s food-stamps program, which was created in 1964. All program benefits are federally funded, while the state and the federal government share most administrative expenditures equally. A recent audit by the non-partisan Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau uncovered some startling facts, which should be reviewed and hopefully addressed by the state.

      According to the audit, in 2011, 1.1 million individuals received $1.1 billion in FoodShare benefits. Compare that to just a few years ago, when in 2003 that number was about 460,000 participants. Over the last eight years, the number has grown each year, which many attribute to the downturn in the economy, as well as policy changes that have increased eligibility and made applying for benefits much easier. With so many more participating in the program, the likelihood of fraud or abuse increases, which only harms the honest FoodShare participants and the taxpayers.

      Last year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered Facebook users openly trying to buy and sell FoodShare benefits, most notably, Quest cards. Quest cards replaced the traditional food stamp coupons and are plastic debit cards in which FoodShare benefits are electronically added each month. Similar to a debit card, Quest card users are able to purchase groceries with their card at participating locations.

      One of the alarming facets of the FoodShare program were allegations of people selling Quest cards for cash, and then getting a replacement card for free. According to the Department of Health Services, Quest cards were replaced five or more times within one year to the same recipient in 3,631 cases, and replaced more than 12 times within the same year in 72 cases. While some of those cards may have been legitimately lost, the concern for many is the ease in which lost cards can be replaced. Recipients simply call a toll-free number, request a new card, and the replacement card is sent within days. The number of times that can happen is unlimited.

      The legislative audit also exposed another problem with the FoodShare program: Ineligible persons receiving benefits. Under federal law, incarcerated individuals are prohibited from receiving FoodShare benefits. However, the audit identified 447 state prison inmates who received FoodShare benefits while incarcerated. From the time of incarceration through March 2012, the audit estimates 293 of those inmates received $413,000 in FoodShare benefits, or an average of $1,410 per inmate.

      In addition, 1,192 current recipients were found to be ineligible because they are fleeing to avoid prosecution for a felony, fleeing to avoid incarceration after conviction of a felony or violating a condition of probation or parole. The audit estimates the 847 single-assistance recipients alone collected $1.4 million in benefits  – or an average of $1,690 per person – from the time they became ineligible. Finally, recipients who intentionally violated program rules and were required to repay the benefits, as well as be disqualified from the program, were often not punished for violating. They could reapply and continue to receive benefits even though they knowingly broke the rules.

      These incidents of fraud and abuse are being taken seriously by those of us who care about the integrity of the program and protecting both the taxpayers and legitimate users. It is critical to the success of such programs that incidents of fraud are dealt with swiftly and appropriately. The goal is to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely and public assistance programs benefit those who need them most. In the next legislative session, I look forward to reviewing and even implementing necessary changes to these programs, and working towards building a better – not bigger – wagon.

      Sen. Kedzie can be reached in Madison at P.O. Box 7882, Madison, WI 53707-7882 or by calling toll-free 1 (800) 578-1457.  He may be reached in the district at (262) 742-2025 or online at www.senatorkedzie.com

 
 

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