Tuesday, February 5, 2013
By Chris Cassidy / Boston Herald
The Bay State’s beleaguered welfare department — after overpaying food stamp recipients to the tune of nearly $27 million — then shelled out overtime to staffers for months to fix the blunder, the Herald has learned.
The Department of Transitional Assistance couldn’t say yesterday how big the overtime tab was or how many workers cashed in to fix the costly 2011 gaffe — just the latest example of costly mismanagement to emerge from the troubled agency — but insisted that by acting quickly, they stopped the overpayment from getting worse.
The overtime was authorized to ease a backlog of 30,000 food stamp cases, many of which weren’t properly recertified after their benefits had expired, causing the feds to raise the alarm.
“In order to avoid any unnecessary hardship for families, and to prevent additional work for ourselves, it is critical that all outstanding recertifications be completed on time,” former DTA Commissioner Julia Kehoe wrote in a memo to DTA staffers on Feb. 1, 2011. “I am also pleased to announce that we will once again offer overtime for the purpose of completing SNAP re-evaluations only.”
A subsequent memo issued March 22 announced the overtime hours would continue until the end of March.
“This overtime helped DTA staff eliminate a backlog of nearly 30,000 cases in 2011, preventing millions in additional overpayments to clients,” said interim DTA Commissioner Stacey Monahan. “However, the fact that any overpayments were made at a cost to taxpayers is unacceptable. Secretary (John) Polanowicz has taken decisive action to change the leadership at DTA to address these serious challenges and focus on solutions.”
State officials said the backlog was caused by the recession when food stamp benefits in Massachusetts skyrocketed by more than $70 million per month and caseloads more than doubled while staffing levels dropped.
But the head of the union that represents 1,100 DTA workers blasted the state for relying on overtime rather than hiring more workers to “stem the tide of rising caseloads” over the years.
“DTA has had the choice of solving the problem or kicking it down the road for another day,” said Susan Tousignant, the president of SEIU Local 509. “Unfortunately, they’ve chosen again and again to bring in already overworked caseworkers for overtime rather than hiring additional workers.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton) told the Herald she plans to file an amendment to the state’s supplemental budget that would strip all fraud prevention and detection powers from DTA and give them to the inspector general.
“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” O’Connell said. “They’re just not doing their job.”
The overtime revelation comes just days after DTA Commissioner Daniel J. Curley resigned under pressure amid an agency shake-up ordered by new Health & Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz. The Herald reported Friday that thousands of mailings sent to welfare recipients came back undeliverable and that the state had overpaid food stamp recipients by nearly $27 million. It also comes on the heels of a report from the inspector general, first reported by the Herald, that another $25 million in welfare money may be going to recipients who aren’t eligible.