Teamwork gets results for food stamp managers

Teamwork gets results for food stamp managers

Jane Mattern Vachon

Team problem solving is what a new state self-help effort in the Food Stamp Program is all about. Initiated and supported by the Food and Nutrition Service, the effort enables the most talented federal, state, and local food stamp managers to work together in helping food stamp agencies that have high error rates or other problems in managing their programs.

“It’s the best example I know of a federal-state partnership,” says Virgil Conrad, deputy administrator for family nutrition programs at FNS. “Although it doesn’t cost a lot of money, we’re harnessing knowledge so that people don’t have to re-invent the wheel to do a better job. What better way to help a state than to get people who are executing the job well in another state to become the teachers.”

Every region is involved

Each of the seven FNS regional offices has organized a technical assistance team that will provide help where needed. Two of the regions are sharing a team, so there are six in all.

The teams consist of regional, state, and local experts, including state and local prosecutors and investigators, staff from state Inspector General offices, and claims collections specialists. States contribute the time and skills of their people, and FNS contributes funds for travelling as well as overall direction.

Reaction to the teams has been enthusiastic. “Part of the success of the effort,” says Conrad, “can be measured in the commitment of the states to put up team members. Here are state people willing not only to improve their own programs, but to help others in managing theirs.”

One of the teams’ main concerns is helping states cut down on errors made in certifying applicants and in determining recipients’ benefit levels. Bringing down high error rates is a priority for many states, since they face potential sanctions from FNS for levels that exceed national limits. The teams are also helping states improve methods for prosecuting fraud and collecting claims for overpayments made to recipients.

“Nationally, we’ve seen a lot of progress in making the Food Stamp Program more accountable,” says Conrad. “National error rates are coming down. There are more fraud investigations than ever before. And tougher penalties for violators mean recipients can lose access to their benefits if they defraud the program.

“But states have had varying degrees of success with bringing down their error rates and fighting fraud. We encourage states to go after fraud by giving them enhanced funding for anti-fraud activities. Usually, the federal government pays for half of states’ administrative costs in operating the Food Stamp Program. For certain anti-fraud activities, we increase this to 75 percent.

“States who are using this funding well are seeing tremendous savings. By successfully preventing fraudulent benefits from going out, some are saving as much as $70 for each dollar in enhanced funding they receive from us. Other states, however, are not even preventing a full dollar in fraudulent benefits from going out for each dollar in enhanced funding they receive.”

Many states with high error rates have asked for guidance from FNS. Providing this guidance and helping states better use the enhanced funding is what the technical assistance teams are designed to do.

Effort is part of Operation Awareness

The teams grow out of and are part of FNS’ highly successful food stamp management campaign known as Operation Awareness. Now just finishing its third year, Operation Awareness has encouraged state managers to share skills and problem-solving techniques through conferences, newsletters, catalogues of state and local anti-fraud efforts, and other activities.

Through the State Exchange Program, an important part of Operation Awareness, FNS has paid for food stamp managers to travel to other states and regions to view successful management techniques.

The technical assistance teams add a new dimension to the state exchange concept. “You now have a pool of knowledge from several states organized and available to everyone,” Conrad says. He sees the teams working as a communications clearing-house that enables the federal government to carry out technical assistance in a very cost-effective, practical way.

Conrad and other food stamp managers at FNS had considered the idea of hiring a national consultant to travel around the country and offer assistance. They rejected this idea because the services of such a specialist would be expensive and because there might be resistance from states to a high-level outsider coming in to address their problems.

Conrad is pleased with this decision. “We couldn’t have done better on the market,” he says. “The teams are people who have learned by the school of hard knocks how to solve problems. They’re academically prepared, but they’ve also learned from experience. FNS regional staff have done an excellent job of marshalling the talent within their regions.”

The teams have achieved some dramatic results in the year and a half since they were set up. Each FNS regional office had the flexibility to set up its technical assistance team in its own way, so every team is somewhat different. The following highlights illustrate how the teams work and what kind of results they’re getting in various areas:

Mid-Atlantic and Northeast

FNS’ Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regional offices have joined forces with a single team made up of experts from both regions. The team is called STAFF, for Special Technical Assistance for Anti-Fraud Funding. STAFF activities have generated a good deal of publicity and interest in both regions, and a number of state agencies have made some changes in their operations as a result of the team’s work.

For example, at the encouragement of the team, last February local food stamp staff from Mercer County, New Jersey, visited Camden County’s Special Investigations Unit, which prevents certification of ineligible applicants for food stamps and AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Mercer County staff were so impressed with the unit, they set up a similar operation themselves within a few months.

STAFF member John Murray, assistant director of special investigations in Maryland, expanded on this effort by spending 3 days training 33 investigators from 10 New Jersey counties in anti-fraud techniques.

The team also helped the New York State Department of Social Services reach out to the county level. In September, all STAFF team members got together in Albany to review the model county anti-fraud system New York has designed to strengthen local district fraud control activities.

Team members heartily endorsed the system, which is based on the idea that food stamp client fraud is most effectively investigated and followed up at the county level by specialized units. Once the system is in place statewide, all New York counties will be required to give special attention to food stamp claims collections and investigations.

In another area, STAFF member Paul McCann, administrative hearings officer for Rhode Island, visited the District of Columbia to offer advice on how D.C. could improve its fraud and fair hearings system. Meeting with top D.C. officials last spring, McCann explained how standard froms, case-worker training, and procedures for presenting testimony and evidence have helped the relatively small Rhode Island state agency process a large volume of fraud and fair hearing cases.

Visits result in changes

STAFF member Ralph Sullivan, assistant prosecutor for Union County, New Jersey, traveled a bit further. This past June, he spent a week helping work out a prosecution agreement between the Virgin Islands Attorney General’s office and the Islands’ Department of Social Welfare.

Sullivan was sent to the Virgin Islands because the Department of Social Welfare was having difficulty qualifying for enhanced funding from FNS. They had been unable to get the required prosecution agreement with their Attorney General’s office specifying exactly what the responsibilities of each office would be in prosecuting welfare fraud cases.

The previous year the Attorney General’s office had not prosecuted any cases of welfare fraud, even though the Department of Social Welfare had identified hundreds of cases of potential fraud.

Armed with travel arrangements and appointments set up by regional STAFF members, and a sample prosecution agreement hammered out ahead of time with regional food stamp staffer Leonard Klepner, Sullivan met with officials of the Virgin Islands Departments of Law and Social Welfare.

“I explained to the Attorney General’s office how my unit up in Union County is funded, and the various expenses that are paid by FNS,” Sullivan says. “And I explained that the funding would not only benefit the Department of Social Welfare, but also would cover some of teh expenses of the Attorney General’s office for the prosecution of fraud cases. i don’t think they were aware of the extent of funding that was available.”

By the end of the week, Sullivan had gotten a commitment from the Attorney General’s office to become more involved in investigating and prosecuting welfare fraud. “I think we accomplished a lot while I was down there,” he says.

He was pleased to see follow-up articles in the Virgin islands press about a new crackdown on welfare fraud by the Attorney General’s office. The draft agreement he worked out during the visit was later finalized, and the Virgin Islands is now getting enhanced funding from FNS.

Arrangement works well for everyone

John Sullivan of FNS’ Mid-Atlantic regional office is STAFF coordinator for his region and handles the details of many of the team’s efforts. “At the regional office we work out the funding, the liaison work, and the publicity,” he says. “The state and local team members actually go and supervise the technical assistance.”

The arrangement, he says, works well. “When you set out to give technical assistance, you get asked for direct information. The state and local people have it. The people we’re helping would rather talk to a county or state person than a federal person, because they have the same problems.”

Southeast

FNS’ Southeast region has focused on demonstrating innovative ideas in its technical assistance effort. Many of the states in the region are following up on advice they’ve gotten from their neighbors through the team’s work.

In one exchange between Southeastern states, technical assistance team member Ed Pledger, deputy director of the Office of Fraud and Abuse with Georgia’s Department of Human Resources, told a representative from North Carolina how Georgia intercepts state income tax refunds to repay outstanding food stamp claims.

North Carolina’s Division of Social Services is now working on getting a bill through the state legislature which would allow the state to set up a similar tax intercept system in 1987.

State managers in Florida, South Carolina, and Tenneessee are following up on a claims collection system they learned about during trips to Kentucky set up by the technical assistance team last spring.

During the visits, Larry Hood, head of Kentucky’s special collection unit, told representatives from the three states how his staff pursues collection of delinquent and hard-to-collect food stamp, AFDC, and child support claims. he also explained how Kentucky uses a private collection agency to go after debts that the state is unsuccessful in collecting.

All three visiting states plan to explore similar ideas. As a result of recommendations from regional and state resource team members, Kentucky plans to make some changes as well. To increase the amount of claims being established, the state will be setting up specialized claims worker positions in more than 60 counties.

Other exchanges also successful

Florida’s “front-end” investigation technique, which allows suspicious cases to be checked for fraud before applicants are certified for program benefits, was the focus of a visit from representatives from Mississippi and Alabama. Regional resource team members suggested the visit because managers from the two states had been reluctant to try a similar system developed in California.

“We told them that Florida had picked up on this technique and was getting some very good results. We suggested they go over and take a look at it, and they agreed to do that,” says Al Boutin, a food stamp supervisor with FNS’ Southeast regional office.

Boutin coordinated a time in June for the two states to go to Florida, and funded the trip through the State Exchange program. Bill Davis, Director of the Division of Public Assistance Fraud in Florida’s Auditor General’s office, gave them a warm welcome.

He spent half a day explaining Florida’s Fraud Investigator’s Prevention Project (FIPP), under which eligibility workers refer suspicious cases to state investigators assigned to their certification office.

According to Davis, FIPP ran as a pilot project for 6 months last year in one food stamp office in each of four Florida districts. Each district was assigned an investigator, whose salary qualified for 75 percent enhanced funding from FNS.

During the 6 months, a total of 252 cases were referred to the investigators. Of these, 116 were approved, 26 were approved with benefit reduction, 98, were denied, and 11 people withdrew their applications after being confronted with the information found in the investigation. The total savings in actual outflow of food stamps amounted to nearly $76,000.

Mississippi and Alabama representatives were impressed with the Florida project. Mississippi took immediate action, making the program an option available to counties in the state the following month. Now more than 50 of the 82 counties in Mississippi have access to investigative workers. Alabama plans to set up a similar system in the near future.

“We should share

with each other”

Bill Davis enjoyed sharing his success with neighboring states. “If we can help somebody else, we certainly want to do it. We should share with each other,” he says.

He is not surprised that the technical assistance team idea works. “Ihve been on both sides of the fence, and I’ve found that people in states will tend to listen to somebody in another state quicker than they will someone from the regional office,” he says. “Now, I don’t know why, but that’s just the way it goes!”

Midwest

The Midwest technical assistance team includes staff from FNS’ regional and field offices, regional staff from the U.S. Inspector General’s office, and the Secret Service. State and county staff contribute expertise on a case-by-case basis, as do representatives from fNS’ Washington office.

Team efforts got underway late in 1984 when members met with a newly formed state unit in Ohio developed to investigate food stamp fraud and trafficking. The team provided information on procedures for coordinating and reporting on investigations between state and federal agencies, as well as training on the investigative process.

“Since they were brand new to the game, they were open to all kinds of suggestions about what was needed,” says Liza Cowden, a food stamp specialist with FNS’ Midwest regional office, who is involved with the project.

In Illinois, a series of meetings between team members and state officials helped get a commitment from the Illinois Department of Public Aid to pursue more food stamp fraud cases, and from the Illinois Bureau of Law Enforcement to become more involved in food stamp investigations as well.

Team suggests

improvements

In Michigan, the team helped with a broad-scale investigative follow-up to the state’s wage matching effort. Using a computer, the state had compared food stamp records with Social Security wage files and come up with a list of thousands of people who has earned income that was not reported to the welfare office. Team members made three trips to Michigan to help state managers pare down the list and focus their investigative work on the most acute cases of fraud.

As the project, known as “Project Clear,” developed, the technical assistance team made many suggestions for improvements. “The team was quite helpful,” says Dave Wigent, director of the Office of Systems Development and support in the Michigan Department of Social Services.

“We went along with their recommendations without exception because we could see how they were going to make the system an easier one to administer.”

The state looked at cases for three programs–food stamps, AFDC, and general assistance. “We ended up with more than 6,000 cases that had reported little or no earnings, and we were finding that many of them had earnings in excess of $10,000. Some had up to $40,000,” Wigent says.

“About 80 percent of these were referred for prosecution during the first year of Project Clear. So it’s really been a boon to our state in terms of trying to clean up some of these fraudulent activities. It also has a tremendous deterrent effect on future recipients who may think about ripping off the system.”

Through Project Clear, state managers have identified $40 million in overpayments to recipients in the three programs they’ve been looking at. They’re now involved in the second round of the project.

Noting the extensive press and television coverage of Michigan’s effort, Liza Cowden says the technical assistance team has given anti-fraud efforts added visibility. “I think the business of helping states is more attractive than sanctioning them,” she says, “as necessary as sanctions might be.”

Southwest

FNS’ Southwest region has used its technical assistance team to expand its very active State Exchange Program. Instead of putting special emphasis on the team aspect of technical assistance, the regional office provides a list of team members and their specialties to states and encourages them to contact the individuals for help. The team has helped set up a number of very successful exchanges.

One of the most successful exchanges to date involved some idea-swapping between Oklahoma and Arkansas. Knowing that Oklahoma was looking for an error-reduction strategy that would qualify for enhanced funding, FNS regional staff suggested Oklahoma take a look at Arkansas’ Field Investigation concept.

Under Arkansas’ system, when an eligibility worker finds a case suspected of being fraudulent, he or she refers it to the field investigator stationed in the certification office for a quick check within the application processing deadline. This prevents errors “up front” before applicants are certified.

The Oklahoma staff had been considering using special verification workers in their offices, but they found that these workers did not qualify for enhanced funding because they verified all error-phone cases. To qualify for enhanced fuding, such workers must investigate cases suspected of being fraudulent.

Trip results

in new project

A representative from Oklahoma traveled to Arkansas, using State Exchange funds, and decided to design a project similar to Arkansas’ for her state. FNS approved enhanced funding for the new project, called Field Eligibility Examiners (FEE), and provided addtional State Exchange funds for technical assistance team member Ann Ruffin of Arkansas to travel to Oklahoma to help train the new workers.

Oklahoma’s FEE project got underway in July, with five investigators in Oklahoma city and five in Tulsa. The state began realizing savings right away–in the first 2 months, the program prevented more than $130,000 in ineligible payments from being issued, and helped to identify a large number of overpayments as well. FEE investigators found that more than half of the cases they looked at involved false information.

Other successful exchanges included Arkansas’ demonstrating a system that will help Texas expand its use of direct mail issuance of food stamps to prevent loss and improve efficiency of distribution.

Arkansas’ automated system for assigning serial numbers to certified mail makes it possible to track food stamp benefits back to individual cases. The Texas Department of Human Resources estimates the system will eliminate hundreds of hours of manual effort.

Texas, in turn, provided training and advice last July to investigators from New Mexico’s new Program Integrity Bureau. Texas shared some of its techniques of successful food stamp fraud investigation and prosecution, such as prosecutor agreements and an automated case reporting system used by investigators. The two states discussed the potential for future interstate computer matches.

Mountain Plains

The Mountain Plains regional office, like the Southwest, has chosen a less structured approach for its technical assistance team. The team operates primarily as a group of expert individuals whom food stamp managers can call on for guidance. The approach has gotten results in many areas.

In December 1984, for example, team members reviewed anti-fraud activities at the Kansas state office. As a result of their recommendations, state managers dramatically increased the amount of anti-fraud funding they were receiving from FNS–from $20,000 in 1984 to $200,000 in 1985. In addition, the state set up a unit of pre-certification investigators in Wichita and has plans for similar units in Topeka and Kansas City.

In Coloado, the team suggested changes that would enable the state to pass 75-percent funding through to county prosecutors. The Colorado Department of Social Services worked to get the needed changes through the state legislature, and is now negotiating agreements with all prosecutors in the state.

Project in Utah

goes statewide

In Utah, state representatives worked closely with FNS regional staff in trying to find a solution to the state’s high error rate. The regional staff found that because Utah had three state level offices dealing with the Food Stamp Program, there was no one organization to coordinate special activities, making change in the state’s program somewhat difficult to accomplish.

They thought a project called Project Integrity–used by a number of states around the country–might help. The basic goal of Project Integrity is to reduce client error by making food stamp applicatns and recipients to accurately report household circumstances. This is done through a major news media campaign that focuses on a joint federal-state review of a large sample of cases.

Using State Exchange funds, the Mountain Plains team arranged for representatives from Iowa and South Dakota to go to Utah and make a presentation on how Project Integrity worked in their states. Utah state managers took what they thought were the most effective components of each state’s program and came up with their own Project Accuracy.

Utah’s version of Project Integrity was the first to go statewide. It encompassed food stamps, AFDC, and Medicaid. FNS’ regional office staff worked closely with the state as the project developed, reviewing materials and taking part in training sessions for investigators. The state’s media blitz got underway in September, and the project ran through December.

Part of the effort’s success was that it fostered a great deal of cooperation. “The offices at the state level worked very closely on this,” says Utah’s Terry Johnson, coordinator for Project Accuracy. “I think we all have the same goals.”

Western Region

FNS’ Western regional office puts a strong emphasis on the team approach. Although team members generally go out alone on technical assistance missions, the entire group gets together once a year to draw on collective experiences in a planning and strategy session. The regional office directs the effort by analyzing state problems through internal reporting documents and federal reviews and targeting specific technical assistance for states.

A big success story for the region, according to team coordinator Audrey Lakes, has been Washington State’s progress in increasing prosecutions and investigations. The increase is a result of implementing a fraud prosecution agreement between county prosecutors and the Washington Department of Social Services.

With enhanced funding, FNS pays for 75 percent of the cost of prosecuting food stamp fraud cases. The new agreement in Washington allows the state to pass that funding directly to county prosecutors. This gives county prosecutors incentive to go after welfare fraud cases, which come across their desks for prosecution mingled with homicides and other more serious crimes.

The results

are dramatic

In 1983, prior to the agreement, Washington completed only 6 fraud prosecutions including just over $8,000 and only 230 fraud investigations involving $36,000. Last year, with the agreement in place, the state completed 337 prosecutions involving more than $150,000 and more than 6,000 investigations involving $1.7 million. “It’s really remarkable,” says Lakes.

Arizona has had many success stories involving anti-fraud funding as well. Technical resource team member Charlie Sharp, chief of the Office of Special Investigations for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, has brought many innovations to his state, including a project inspired by a California program.

Last year Sharp sent an assistant to look over the Early Fraud Detection Program in California’s Orange County and liked what he heard about it enough to test the idea in a Phoenix certification office for 3 months. The project involved stationing an investigator in the local office to check out cases of suspected fraud before applicants were certified.

Savings from one investigator handling food stamp, AFDC, and general assistance cases over 3 months amounted to $13,000 in actual dollar savings. “There’s no question that it was cost-effective,” says Sharp.

“We’ve found that of 160 referrals in that 3 months, nearly 40 percent were fraudulent.” Sharp is working on getting a permanent Early Fraud Detection Program installed in the state’s two major cities, Phoenix and Tucson.

Sharp’s office is efficiently set up with a special food stamp fraud unit. “This makes it much easier for me to identify for funding purposes the effectiveness of anti-fraud efforts,” he says.

In addition, last April he set up a statewide fraud hotline which consistently generates about 350 calls from the public each month. FNS’ 75 percent funding pays for hitline expenses involving food stamp cases. Each referral is followed up. “They’re turning in a lot of information to the workers,” Sharp says. “We’re quite pleased with it.”

Team approach

is effective

For all of these technical assistance team initiatives, the real success lies in getting management’s commitment, says Western region’s Audrey Lakes. “You can best do that by actually going out to the state and presenting yourself as part of a federal-state team, working together toward common objectives.”

“It enhances the communication process,” she says, “to start out by saying, ‘This is a benign mission. It’s not a review.’ Right away they know you’re there to help them–they’re not going to get sanctioned as a result of this visit,” says Lakes.

The team concept builds on enhanced funding, State Exchange, and other efforts FNS has made to balance incentives with sanction management. This is why the teams have proven to be such an effective way to transfer knowledge and why in so many instances the effort has already resulted in immediate action by states.

“We know that sanctioning states is not what we really want to do, although it sometimes turns out to be the bottom line,” says Lakes. “But we really don’t want to take money away–we want the states to improve their performance. And I think the technical assistance concept, the team concept, really gets to the heart of that.”

For more information, write: Virgil Conrad, Deputy Administrator for Family Nutrition Food and Nutrition Service U.S. Department of Agriculture Alexandria, Virginia 22302

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