Audit identifies more problems in WA's food stamp program

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by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @cjingalls

KING5.com

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 5:11 PM

Updated Monday, May 26 at 11:30 AM

Thousands of Washington State welfare recipients continue to get numerous replacements of  state-issued debit cards, even though the Department of Social and Health Services promised to put a stop to the practice several years ago.

Nearly 5,100 DSHS clients received five or more replacement cards in 2013, according to the draft report by the office of Washington Auditor Troy Kelley.

DSHS pledged to put a cap on the number of replacement cards in 2011 after a KING 5 investigation revealed that people were openly trading food stamp cards for cash or drugs. The TV station even confronted one man who was selling his card on the online website Craigslist.org.

Once DSHS clients sold their cards, the KING 5 investigation showed that they would go to the nearest DSHS office and get an instant replacement card -- no questions asked.

This made the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards “currency” in the drug trade, according to police officials and community leaders who told KING 5 at the time that their warnings about DSHS' lax policies went unheeded. A high number of replacement cards being issued, therefore, is an indication that some welfare recipients are selling their benefits to others.

The current audit, which is still not final, concludes that the 5,094 clients who’ve replaced their cards received $15.4 million in benefits last year.

Other records in the same audit showed that DSHS paid $8 million in benefits in 2013 to welfare recipients who are dead.

The report does not make any attempt to explain who is receiving those benefits.

KING 5 asked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) for an interview about the audit. A spokesperson said it was unclear if Inslee would be willing to talk about an audit that hasn’t been completed yet.

During an interview Thursday on the Dori Monson show on 97.3 KIRO radio, Inslee said he’d seen KING 5’s story.

“I’m very disturbed by it and I haven’t had a chance to talk to our DSHS people about it, but it’s very concerning to me," Inslee said. The governor told Monson's audience that he would get to the bottom of it.

A DSHS spokesperson said the agency would not comment on the audit until it is complete.

A spokesperson for the Washington State Auditor’s Office said Troy Kelley is unlikely to speak about the audit until after it is released sometime in August.

UPDATE

Late on Friday, May 23, DSHS issued the following statement about the above KING 5 story:

DSHS responds to media reports regarding performance audit of public benefits
 
Olympia - The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) takes allegations of fraud very seriously. We welcome that the State Auditor’s Office is taking an independent look at our operations in its performance audit of public benefits, including the use of electronic benefits cards.
 
Information identified during the audit thus far has been given to DSHS for review. It is likely to change as the audit proceeds. As part of the normal due process of an audit, the Auditor’s Office has asked us to examine this preliminary information and to offer our conclusions, which we are doing. We want to ensure the final audit report is accurate, complete and tells the public what actions DSHS will take going into the future, as part of our mission of ensuring taxpayer dollars are safeguarded.
 
In order to prevent misuse and abuse, we continue to make improvements to our public benefits systems. We also look forward to any recommendations the Auditor’s Office may make regarding further enhancements. The Auditor’s Office has stated in plans to release the final report in August.
 
Last year, more than 1.5 million people received benefits including food, cash and other necessary services from DSHS. We work diligently to ensure only eligible individuals receive these benefits and that dollars are properly spent. We believe that even one instance of fraud is one too many.\

As we do in many of our other programs, we rely on strong public partnerships to help us in our work. People who suspect EBT card fraud should contact our welfare fraud hotline at 1-800-562-6906.

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