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Rock County takes its economic-assistance fraud seriously

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Catherine W. Idzerda
December 24, 2011
— More than 16,000 families and individuals in Rock County receive some kind of economic assistance.

It could be W-2, Medical Assistance, childcare subsidies or supplemental nutritional assistance, formerly called “food stamps.”


Rock County has a reputation for weeding out fraudulent applications. For two years in a row, the county’s economic support specialists have been honored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their accuracy in determining eligibility for economic assistance.


Now, it plans to give more scrutiny to those already receiving benefits.


Last week, the Rock County Board approved a contract to outsource fraud prevention and investigation to a private company.


It’s a move designed to save the county money, reduce fraud and, perhaps most importantly, allow county employees to focus on the work they do best.


Q: How are fraud investigations handled now?


A: Fraud investigations are handled by a single economic support specialist, said Mary Donohue, economic support services supervisor.


If fraud is suspected, the case is sent to the Rock County Sheriff’s Office for investigation.


For each investigation, human services pays the sheriff’s office $500.


If fraud is found, the sheriff’s office and economic support staff meet with the suspect. If the amount is below $2,500 and the individual admits to the fraud, the county sets up a repayment plan. If the amount is more than $2,500 or the individual denies that the fraud took place, the case is sent through the court system.


Q: Why the change?


A: Rock County’s 50 economic support specialists serve 16,000 individuals and families—that’s about 320 cases for each worker.


Because of her caseload, the single economic support worker who handles fraud investigations has time to work on them only four to eight hours a week.


Rock County’s economic support specialists are “very, very good” at determining program eligibility, said Phil Boutwell, human services department deputy director.


Their work helps weed out fraudulent applications and helps serve the people who are most in need.


But Rock County also needs to combat fraud among those already receiving benefits.


“There are certain criteria people have to meet,” Donohue said. “People are required to report a change in status.”


A change in status could include someone moving in or out of a household, additional or new employment or the addition of child support payments.


When people don’t report change, that’s fraud. If committed deliberately and over a long enough time, it becomes a felony.


Q: How will the new system work?


A: Rock County will be part of the Central Wisconsin Fraud Prevention Investigation Consortium administered by Columbia County Health and Human Services.


The state gives counties $22,500 for fraud prevention work, and the county matches a quarter of that with $5,625 of its own money, Boutwell explained.


The consortium contracts with O’Brien and Associates, a private investigation and security firm headquartered in Holmen, for the investigative and collection work. The firm already does similar work for more than 50 other Wisconsin counties.


Q: How much fraud is there?


A: Here’s an example: Rock County distributes about $29 million in supplemental nutritional assistance to hungry families and individuals.


When money is recovered in a fraud case, 85 percent of it returns to the state and 15 percent goes back to the county.


Between January and September, Rock County’s share was $9,861 of $65,740 recovered.



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