- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri lawmakers who want a private firm to scrutinize the state’s welfare rolls say it could save the state millions of dollars by ending benefits for people who aren’t actually eligible for them.

Legislation that cleared House and Senate committees last week would require the Department of Social Services to hire a company by next year to verify recipients’ eligibility for Medicaid, food stamps, child care subsidies and cash welfare payments. The company would flag cases for state employees to investigate.

State Rep. Marsha Haefner said her legislation is meant to weed out fraud and waste, not remove people with real need.

“We can’t take care of the people who actually need help if we’re using all our resources on people who don’t need it,” said Haefner, a Republican from St. Louis County.

Lawmakers voted on several iterations of similar legislation last year, but it ultimately failed because of gridlock in the Senate. Supporters say their chances appear better this year.

A House bill passed its first committee vote Wednesday without any dissent, despite some initial skepticism from Democrats. Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, the Kansas City Democrat who is the committee’s ranking minority member, said he didn’t love the measure but could live with it, since it wouldn’t create incentives for kicking people off programs.

A similar bill by Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, also has cleared a Senate committee. And House Speaker Todd Richardson has said legislators will pass a law this year “requiring state agencies to fact-check applicants.”

The Department of Social Services currently verifies a person’s eligibility for each program at least once a year, department spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel wrote in an email. Federal and state agencies also send them reports regularly, she said.

The legislation would require a private contractor to conduct quarterly comparisons of recipients’ personal information against public records and databases, as well as monthly checks for people who have died, moved or gone to jail.

Haefner, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee on Health, Mental Health and Social Services, said money for the program was already included in this year’s budget. The Department of Social Services has issued a request for proposals, a preliminary step before bidding begins.

Legislative researchers project that hiring a company and processing the cases it highlights would cost about $11 million over the next three years. Of that, $4.6 would be state money and the rest would come from the federal government.

They estimate that would amount to about $24 million in savings to Medicaid and the food stamps program over those three years. Missouri spends more than $10 billion in state and federal money on those programs annually.

Other programs, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, wouldn’t net any savings because they are required to disburse all of their funding; about $1.2 million would be redirected to other parts of the programs, though.

Those estimates are based largely on Illinois’ experience after hiring a private company, Maximus, in September 2012 to audit its Medicaid rolls. But that contract ended in December 2013 and the work was shifted to public employees after a union dispute. The company still provides some support services.

Illinois Sen. Dale Righter, a Republican who was involved in drafting the legislation, said the program was a “smashing success” while it lasted in his state, and Missouri should move forward with it.

“In fact, I would drive to Jefferson City to testify on behalf of it myself,” he said.

Between February 2013 and February 2014, Illinois caseworkers reviewed more than 360,000 cases flagged by Maximus, according to a report to Gov. Bruce Rauner dated July 31, 2015. The state cancelled about 148,000 cases - or 41 percent of the total - but almost 28,000 were reinstated within three months.

Those mistaken cancellations show databases have flaws, said Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of Empower Missouri. It’s not uncommon for people in poverty to move a lot or have mental illnesses, she said, so their data profile is even more likely to have mistaken information - just as it is more likely they can’t correct it.

“When you’re real, real poor, you have nothing to fight with,” she said.

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