House bill would require state agencies to verify eligibility and authenticate identity of every welfare applicant

Staff Writer

Legislation that would require state agencies to verify the eligibility of all applicants for welfare benefits, and require every applicant to complete an identity authentication process, squeaked through a House panel Tuesday on a party-line vote.

House Bill 1270 by Rep. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City, received a do-pass recommendation from the Rules Committee on a 4-3 vote. All four “ayes” were cast by Republicans, and the “nays” were cast by the three Democrats on the panel.

HB 1270 would direct the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) and the Department of Human Services (DHS) to verify the eligibility of every applicant for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)

Hall said her measure is “a work in progress” intended to ensure that “people who truly need” state welfare benefits “are receiving them.” The State of Oklahoma has “limited resources.”

“Has there been evidence of inappropriate receipt of benefits?” asked Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa.

Not in Oklahoma, but in other states, Hall said. Unofficial records indicate several lottery winners in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York improperly received public welfare benefits.

For example, a New York resident who began receiving $1,000 each week in 1998 after winning a scratch-off lottery game was charged with fraud in 2012 after collecting more than $4,000 in welfare benefits. And a Michigan woman received $5,475 in food and medical benefits after winning $1 million in the lottery.

Hall said she just wants to “make sure there’s no fraud and abuse in our benefit programs.” Her legislation would demonstrate that “we’re wisely using tax dollars,” she said.

HB 1270 would instruct the OHCA and the DHS to review, on a quarterly basis, information about program recipients that might affect their continued eligibility for public benefits. “Often times the state is checking these only once a year,” Hall claimed.

However, the DHS reports that it requires SNAP households to be recertified every six months. And the Oklahoma Lottery Commission says it routinely checks the names of lottery winners against DHS child support enforcement records; against Oklahoma Tax Commission rolls, to determine whether a winner has any tax payments in arrears; and with the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, to determine whether a lottery winner is collecting unemployment benefits.

Hall said her measure is modeled on legislation from other states. Rep. David Perryman said HB 1270 is “cookie-cutter legislation” patterned after a proposal developed by the Foundation for Government Accountability, where former state Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, is now a senior fellow.

Rep. Steve Kouplen, D-Beggs, asked what were the results in other states that implemented the provisions proposed in HB 1270, but Hall said she did not have that information at her fingertips.

Perryman asked whether a cost-benefit analysis has been performed on HB 1270. No, Hall said, but vowed that the bill’s title will be stricken by the time it reaches the House floor for consideration by the entire House of Representatives.

Perryman, D-Chickasha, debated against the bill, describing it as “a solution looking for a problem.”

The legislation would mandate redundant administrative burdens for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (which administers SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program) and the Department of Human Services (administrator of the SNAP program), Perryman said. There is no evidence of widespread abuse or fraud in SNAP or SoonerCare, he said. SNAP error rates have fallen steadily for more than a decade, and Oklahoma’s rate of improper payments for Medicaid is low, he said after the meeting.

The DHS estimates that implementing HB 1270 would require the agency to hire 400 to 500 additional workers at an estimated cost of $9 million to $11 million, “and there’s no evidence” that the legislation would provide a return on investment of that magnitude, Perryman told the committee members.

The DHS, Perryman noted, shed 1,200 positions outside of child welfare over the past couple of years (approximately 100 jobs were eliminated just last August) because of budget cutbacks. Already the agency needs $40 million in additional appropriations just to finish out Fiscal Year 2017, which ends June 30.

HB 1270 would be “a new, expensive mandate” that would simply duplicate existing practices, Perryman asserted.

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