May 6, 2013 7:28 PM by Tonya LaCoste
A state legislative audit of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program, shows more than a million dollars was paid to people who were ineligible, including people in prison. The audit, covering fiscal years 2011 and 2012, also reveals duplicate benefits.
The audit examines the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services, which oversees SNAP, and found $1,107,740 in SNAP benefits was given to 1,761 prisoners. "These persons were not a part of a household and therefore should not have used benefits during this time frame," the audit states.
In addition to prisoners receiving benefits they weren't eligible to receive, convicted drug felons, who are not eligible for SNAP benefits until one year after they're released from jail, received $107,864. "These 84 drug felons received SNAP benefits before one year had passed from their date of release from prison," according to the audit. The state auditor's office found DCFS errors mostly happened because prisoner information it receives from the Social Security Administration is not accurate or timely. The state auditor suggests DCFS use a "different method to verify prison information."
The state audit also found over a one year span from 2010 to 2011, 1,573 recipients received three consecutive months of duplicate benefits in Louisiana and other states, but the USDA Inspector General found Louisiana is responsible for less than half of those cases. Louisiana is responsible for duplicating benefits for 605 SNAP recipients, and other states are responsible for the remaining 968 cases. DCFS uses a system to check whether SNAP applicants are already receiving benefits in another state, but the USDA Federal Food and Nutrition Service does not require states to use the federal Public Assistance Reporting Information System, also known as PARIS, nor does it require states to check for interstate participation.
The audit reveals 322 people, who should have been ineligible to receive SNAP because they earned more than $50,000, received about $750,000 in benefits. "It is uncommon for a family to make over $50,000 and still be eligible for SNAP, as this would require a household composition of eight or more people." the audit states. It goes on to say, "However, since income must be verified at the time of application and Louisiana Workforce Commission wage data is always one quarter behind, DCFS only uses these wages to evaluate the validity and reasonableness of the income documentation provided by the applicant and the information reported on the application."
DCFS regional staff, while conducting a review of cases, found $841,615 in overpayments. The review is an internal control process used to determine if applicants were indeed eligible and whether payments were correct. DCFS identified 1,157 people who were overpaid the $841,615. "The cases resulted from agency errors, such as a caseworker entering incorrect income amounts or failing to remove an ineligible member from the case," the audit states. The overpayments were paid in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.
Louisiana's payment error rate has improved from 25th to 4th in the country. The state's payment rate was higher than the normal between fiscal years 2007-2011, which put Louisiana in jeopardy of receiving an approximate $1million sanction if the error rate didn't improve. In Nov. 2012, the jump to fourth in the nation was the second highest improvement among other states. "Over the past two years, DCFS has worked to modernize its systems with the launch of CAFÉ, which provides greater safeguards in determining eligibility such as data mining with our federal and state partners," DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier said. This, and other improvements, she said, helped boost the state to fourth place.
The state legislative auditor identified four areas where DCFS could improve, although the audit admits some of the issues are out of DCFS control, the auditor offers recommendations for those areas DCFS can control, including a reliable process for verifying prison information and looking into whether it can use external databases, in addition to the ones it already uses, to help detect potential fraud.
Sonnier said DCFS is reviewing cases in the audit and will "prosecute those who have purposely tried to defraud the system." DCFS is working to recoup money given to ineligible residents. Sometimes, according to DCFS Director of Communications and Governmental Affairs Trey Williams, it's necessary to work out a payment plan, which, in some cases, can take three years to pay off.