ST. PAUL - A review by Minnesota's legislative auditor has found that some of Minnesota's welfare programs do a poor job of ensuring benefits don't go to ineligible people - a finding that could have political implications as lawmakers shape the state's budget.
Republicans who control the state House and Senate have called for big cuts to the Department of Human Services' budget. One big area Republicans have identified for potential savings in the past is tightening the state's eligibility requirements for public programs - a push driven by a similar audit.
The audit released Friday reviewed several major federally funded programs aimed at helping low-income, elderly and disabled Minnesotans. For these programs, the legislative auditor reviewed the Department of Human Services' processes, and checked a random sample of cases to identify errors.
It found significant error rates in the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, which provides cash and other benefits to low-income families with children. This program is directly administered by workers in counties, not by the state, and the audit found eight of 24 families it reviewed weren't eligible for benefits they received. TANF is funded by the federal government, not by state taxpayers.
The Department of Human Services' own review process - bolstered after a similar finding in an earlier audit - later identified and corrected these mistakes. The audit recommended the department work harder to educate county workers to prevent these mistakes in the future.
The audit also identified errors made by county workers in determining whether elderly and disabled Minnesotans were eligible for help under the state's Medical Assistance or Medicaid program. Four of 40 tested cases were given Medical Assistance benefits they weren't eligible for because they had too much income or too many assets. The state had a previous review system for catching these mistakes but "discontinued these case reviews in October 2015." Medical Assistance costs are split between the state and federal governments.
In a response, DHS Commissioner Emily Johnson Piper agreed with the findings and said the department would redouble its efforts to identify efficiencies and improve training for county workers. She also said the department would work to make sure elderly and disabled Medical Assistance cases were reviewed.
"We are encouraged by the progress we've made in our internal control environment; this is the fewest findings and recommendations we have had in a single audit since 2001," Piper said. "However, we are disappointed that the ... remaining findings are all prior year issues, which we have been unable to resolve."
The audit did not review the state's major public health programs because it had been directed not to by the federal Office of Management and Budget, which conducts reviews of its own. A 2014 audit had found shortcomings in how DHS verified eligibility for these programs, and this time "the department acknowledged that it had not fully resolved most of the findings of our earlier audit of the eligibility determinations in the Minnesota eligibility system."
Republican lawmakers used error rates found in the 2014 audit to call for a major review of eligibility for public programs, in hopes of identifying people wrongly receiving state benefits. The department didn't disagree in principle, but questioned how much savings could be achieved by a tighter eligibility review. Republican budgets predicted $300 million in savings over two years, while the department said a more realistic savings estimate was around $150 million - and that would come only after the program had a few years to ramp up.
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