Mass., local police vow crackdown on welfare fraudBy BOB SALSBERG , Associated Press
Apr. 11, 2013 4:00 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) — State officials and local police chiefs promised Thursday to work together to clamp down on abuse of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards issued to welfare recipients.
Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz announced that the state will share data with police in an effort to identify and take action against retailers who sell liquor or other items prohibited for purchase with the EBT cards, or recipients who use the cards fraudulently.
"We cannot do it alone," Polanowicz said. "We need our partners in law enforcement to protect these programs for the one in eight families in Massachusetts that truly need them as a bridge to stability."
Polanowicz also said during a news conference that a proposal offered by House lawmakers to require photo identification on the EBT cards would not be cost effective.
State rules prohibit the cards, which operate much like bank-issued debit cards, from being used to buy alcohol, tobacco and firearms. Lawmakers concerned with abuse moved to add several other items to the banned list last year, including guns and services at tattoo parlors and nail salons.
Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, a member of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said the data-sharing arrangement will help close an enforcement gap that has allowed EBT fraud to fall under the radar.
Kyes, who joined state officials at the announcement of the data-sharing arrangement, said police share a common goal in identifying retailers who flaunt the law.
"Some of the retailers that have been identified or flagged recently as potential violators of this program have been liquor and package stores," he said. "These are the same types of establishments we've had problems with before in selling to minors and intoxicated individuals."
Polanowiz had asked Stacey Monahan, interim commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, to conduct a top to bottom review of how state benefit programs are administered. Monahan's predecessor, Daniel Curley, resigned after investigations by the state inspector general and others pointed to fraud and waste, including about $25 million in benefits handed out to people whose eligibility couldn't be confirmed.
As part of a 100-day action plan, the department began biweekly monitoring of ATMs and point-of-sale transactions to identify potentially illegal purchases. Information collected during the monitoring will now be shared with local police departments.
State officials maintain that the vast majority of welfare recipients use their cards properly.
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Committee included as part of its annual state budget proposal a requirement that photos be placed on EBT cards to make sure that only the recipient assigned to the card can use it.
The administration of former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney decided when the cards were first issued in 2004 that a photo identification system would be too expensive, Polanowicz said, and that continues to be the case.
"I would say right now there is not a cost benefit associated with putting the pictures on the cards," he said.
House Republican Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, said the GOP would seek further reforms as part of the state budget process, including stronger oversight of EBT benefits that are converted to cash.
"Unfortunately, the proposals by Beacon Hill Democrats only scratch the surface — lacking teeth and duplicating responsibilities by further increasing state bureaucracy," Jones said in a statement.