Charged with improving program integrity after a few high-profile and embarrassing disclosures, Interim Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Stacey Monahan said recent news had damaged the department while also noting that individual welfare benefits have remained flat for years.
Speaking to members of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees at Arlington Town Hall, Monahan said that she is undertaking a “top to bottom review of the agency,” and plans to visit all 22 DTA offices, having already visited 10 since arriving in early February.
The last commissioner, Dan Curley, was asked to resign after Inspector General Glen Cunha announced errors and eligibility concerns costing as much a $25 million per year, and a letter from the federal government indicating there had been $28 million in overpayments to food stamp recipients. Questions were also raised about out-of-date address information used by the department.
“These issues have dominated public discourse, vilified our clients and damaged the credibility of the department,” Monahan told lawmakers. She said, “It is clear that DTA faces serious challenges that need to be addressed.”
A former Massachusetts Democratic Party executive director, Monahan most recently worked as chief of staff to former Health and Human Services Secretary JudyAnn Bigby. Monahan, who said she met with Cunha last week and his report will be a “blueprint,” also noted that many years that have passed without an increase in the amount of welfare given to qualifying individuals.
Monahan said benefits have not kept pace with inflation or cost of living changes. She said there had not been an increase in the food benefit since 1989.
Monahan said $4.1 million of Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget would go toward electronic benefit transfer reform, and said that officials had decided against going to a completely cashless system, and will receive “red flags” if a client withdraws money from an ATM at a prohibited facility, such as a strip club.
As Rep. Viriato deMacedo (R-Plymouth) sought to uncover the reason for lapses within DTA, Monahan said that caseworkers in some instances failed to file paperwork, perhaps because benefits were given on an emergency basis and there was no follow-up. Noting the budget calls for additional case workers, Monahan said, “Our caseload has been very high, and our case workers are very strapped.”
Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D-Holliston) said the department’s efforts to modernize its computer system were occurring too late for her liking.
“I think we should have invested in many of these systems before the dramatic increases in need,” Dykema said.
Monahan said that DTA’s new online database is expected to go up in 2015 and will allow data to be linked between DTA, the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Social Security Administration.
Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford) said he was concerned that discussion of DTA’s failures would veer into “Cadillac welfare queens and some really atrocious comments about people living in poverty.” Sciortino asked when benefits were last increased, and Monahan said cash benefits were boosted about 10 percent in 2001, and the last increase in the food benefit was 1989.
Rep. Geoff Diehl (R-Whitman) asked about compliance with a 2012 law that banned certain purchases with EBT, and Monahan said the DTA is continuing to make improvements in that area.
“We’ve put the department in compliance,” Monahan said. She said, “I don’t think that’s enough.”
Monahan said DTA would begin regional training sessions about the law for retailers.
Sen. Sal DiDomenico (D-Everett) sought information about where recovered improper payments were deposited and was unhappy to learn that they are deposited in the state’s general fund rather than back in the DTA’s budget, where DiDomenico said they could serve their purpose of helping people in need.
“That’s disappointing,” DiDomenico said. He also said that some people now feel uncomfortable going to DTA offices because of the public backlash.
Monahan said, “We do our best to de-stigmatize receiving benefits,” and said there is armed security at 18 of the 22 DTA offices though she is unaware of people feeling physically threatened.