The Maine Heritage Policy Center (MHPC) has extensively reviewed the latest undercover video of an intake coordinator at Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services Portland office, released today by videographer James O’Keefe. The Think Tank is giving the employee mixed grades. The video can be seen here.
“This latest tape gives us a better perspective of the welfare intake process,” said MHPC Chief Executive Officer Lance Dutson. “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. The intake culture is far too focused on getting people into the system, and this is something that clearly needs to change.”
MHPC broke the interview down into four categories:
1- Training/ Program Knowledge
Grade: A -
In contrast to the first video, the employee who was secretly filmed by an actor in the Portland DHHS office was obviously very well trained and knowledgeable of Maine’s vast welfare bureaucracy and eligibility requirements.
Despite making some clear errors in her explanation of Medicare vs. Medicaid, this employee was able to appropriately articulate the processes and programs available to applicants for welfare services.
Similar to the process shown in the video of Biddeford DHHS employees, the length of time spent-nearly one hour-with this likely ineligible welfare applicant was excessively long. DHHS should train intake coordinators to ask simple means-test questions at the beginning of these interviews, to be able to efficiently and honestly process applicants. This interview should have ended in 5 minutes, after the DHHS employee was told the potential applicant could afford to purchase his own private health insurance. Also, once the applicant established that he had access to a bank account with $250,000 in it, and that he had a debit card that he could use “any time” for “anything he needed”, it should have become clear to the employee that this applicant was not someone who needed state assistance.
3- Stewardship of Taxpayer Funds
The DHHS employee took precautions to outline the specific parameters for an applicant to receive taxpayer funded services. By drawing these clear lines, the employee set an appropriate standard for eligibility, which is conducive to guarding against abuse of scarce welfare funds. The employee also spoke frankly to the applicant about the perils of unreported income, noting that it would be detrimental to their social security benefits in the long-term. In stark contrast to the Biddeford employee, who twice told the applicant that unreported income is not a factor in application for welfare benefits, this Portland employee made it clear that all income, cash or not, needs to be declared during the application process.
However, the employee provided far more detail than was necessary for an applicant that had already identified sufficient means. The interview should have been cut short on the basis that means were available, and that welfare services should be a last resort. This interaction is less indicative of poor performance by an employee, and more indicative of a system with inappropriate goals. The overall goal of DHHS employees should be to help Maine’s less fortunate get on their feet through employment opportunities, and not lead them toward long-term dependence on the welfare system.
4- Fraud Vulnerability
Though the DHHS employee was articulate and had a strong command of bureaucratic parameters, the interview could have opened the door for future fraudulent activity. The employee, through her thorough explanation of eligibility requirements and the intake process, effectively coached the applicant on the best way to answer questions in order to receive benefits. The applicant left the interview with advice from the employee that removing his name from his parents $250,000 bank account was “one way to get around it.”
In the case of the Biddeford tape, the applicant presented a clear picture of illegal dealings through his “offshore pharmaceutical imports” operation. In the case of this latest tape, however, the scenario of a drug dealing cash-rich applicant wasn’t laid out so plainly. The concern for the applicant perpetrating fraud would naturally have been less in the Portland scenario. Nevertheless, DHHS employees should take precaution that they are not providing advice that could be used as part of future attempts to defraud the system.
“This investigation shows how a ‘Secret Shopper’ program, used extensively in the private sector to improve employee performance, could be an effective tool in reforming our welfare intake process.” Dutson said. “While the first video released showed a clear breakdown in the function of front-line DHHS processes, this video provides examples of both good and bad practices that should be used as educational tools for DHHS employees.”
MHPC has offered a series of suggestions to the LePage Administration to help improve the efficiency of the welfare intake system, as well as protect against fraud. One suggestion was to establish a ‘Secret Shopper’ program, to monitor employee performance. In addition, MHPC has urged Maine DHHS to adopt diversion programs, to make employment and self-sufficiency a primary goal, as well as strict penalties for fraudulent activity by welfare recipients and DHHS employees.
“We have seen both through our years of research, and this recent investigation that the primary goal of DHHS has been to enroll applicants into the system,” continued Dutson. “In order to stem the out-of-control increase in welfare dependency, we must fundamentally change the DHHS culture to one focused on getting Mainers back on their feet. It’s critical we constantly audit our processes to ensure taxpayer funds are not being wasted or abused, while at the same time advance reforms to free Maine families from welfare dependency.”
For questions or to schedule an interview, please contact Chris Cinquemani at firstname.lastname@example.org