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Commissioners want to dispel coffee shop talk on 'welfare fraud'

WILLMAR -- Whenever there's a news story of a county resident wrongfully obtaining government assistance, the Kandiyohi County Commissioners know they will hear about it from their constituents.

"I hear more complaints about this in the coffee shops than anything else," said Commissioner Richard Larson, who said people don't understand the whole picture and don't understand how effective the county is in preventing welfare fraud.

For every story of someone being convicted, there are 100 more stories of potential fraud that was stopped in the county before it had a chance to happen, said Sue Leal, adult income maintenance supervisor.

Catching those cases involves county employees being able to communicate well with clients and to maneuver through a web of complicated forms and regulations to detect potential fraud.

"We truly try to prevent overpayment and fraud situations," said Barb Kavanagh, supervisor for the county's family income maintenance program, during a report Tuesday to the County Board of Commissioners.

"We're very proud of our financial workers and the commitment they have to the community," said Kavanagh. "It's amazing how much knowledge it takes to administer the program."

It's a fact the commissioners say they are well aware of, but the public -- and even legislators -- aren't aware of.

"We need to toot our horn," Larson said.

Commissioner Harlan Madsen said the county needs to educate, engage and inform people to "clearly put the facts out there" to make it easy for the public to comprehend the complexities of the issue.

When potential fraud is reported, either by financial workers or from anonymous calls from the public, the cases are investigated by the county's fraud prevention officer, Cindy Feeken.

About half of those 200 cases are shown to have no fraud, but through the investigative process the opportunity is taken to remind clients about the importance of accurate reporting and penalties for violations, Feeken said.

Another 40 to 50 percent of the investigated cases are found to have issues that require adjustments in benefits or disqualifications. Those cases were sometimes the result of unintentional program violations, said Feeken.

About 10 cases are prosecuted every year on the criminal level, she said.

Most of the fraud cases that involve large overpayments of thousands of dollars are for health insurance premiums that go to health care companies. It's not cash that goes into individuals' pockets, said Feeken, adding that the county has an active program to collect overpayments.

She said undocumented citizens do not receive assistance. But undocumented adults can request benefits for their U.S.-born children if the parents report lack of income to support them. When it's discovered the parents do have jobs and unreported income, action is taken to stop the benefits.

Feeken said tips from the public are helpful to begin investigations.

As a result of positive results in the fraud prevention program the Minnesota Department of Human Services reported that the county had savings of $79,000 last year, Kavanagh said.

This year, the Legislature is considering a bill that would reduce funding for fraud prevention officers, said Family Services Director Jay Kieft. The county will "suffer the consequences" if that funding is reduced, he said.

Jim Butterfield, who is the newest commissioner on the board, said his "eyes were opened" to what goes on with the county's financial assistance programs and fraud-fighting efforts when he spent a good part of a recent day shadowing financial workers.

Butterfield said reports of welfare fraud in the county are "blown out of proportion" and that the county is actively investigating and preventing fraud cases every day.

"These are things the people of Kandiyohi County are not hearing about," said Butterfield, who asked for a list of facts and figures so that he could respond to people who corner him in the coffee shop.

Kieft encouraged the commissioners to talk to constituents about the county program to help remove misconceptions. "You guys carry weight in what you're talking about," he said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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