What is the Real Goal of Fraud Investigations?
California is in the midst of a major budget crisis. The past year has seen immense and drastic cuts to social service budgets throughout the state, including elimination of all state funding ($16 million) to domestic violence shelters (which was later partially restored by legislative action) and near-total decimation of funds for AIDS testing and prevention programs to save $52 million. Even with those catastrophic cuts, the state is still in massive financial difficulty: “The state has a $6.6 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year ending June 30 and is looking at a $12.3 billion hole for the new budget year. There is $1 million in reserve.”
This means that any dollar currently being spent has been extensively reviewed and evaluated and a very conscious decision has been made to prioritize spending in that area. For example, the state is still willing to spend money for California counties to investigate potential fraud in the In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. IHSS is an essential program for many of California’s low-income elderly people and people with disabilities. Through the program, individuals are allotted a certain number of hours of assistance with personal services including bathing and grooming, home services such as cleaning, cooking, and errands including buying groceries and picking up prescriptions. The theory of the program is that assisting people this way allows them to continue living independently in their communities rather than in a long-term care facility, which not only preserves independence and dignity for program recipients, but also is a huge cost-savings measure for the state. If program recipients were to move to long-term care facilities, their costs would almost certainly be paid for by the state’s Medicaid program. And look at the cost differential: “The average cost of a skilled nursing facility is $55,000 a year. The average cost of in-home services in California is $10,000.”
Despite the cost savings realized by this program (I’m beyond the point where I think a state will prioritize and fund a program simply because it’s something that PWDs need to maintain independence and dignity), there have been massive cuts to the benefits portions of IHSS. The hourly wage paid to the home health providers has steadily declined and is now at $8.60 an hour. Needless to say, these extremely low wages make it nearly impossible for a PWD with IHSS benefits to find a home care provider with any kind of training or experience. There have also been steady erosions to the group of individuals who will be eligible for IHSS, with criteria requiring a higher and higher level of disability or functional impairment in order to qualify for the program.
The only area of program funding that has increased is fraud detection, with a grant of $26.5 million to counties to engage in fraud detection. That’s the equivalent of approximately 3 million service hours at the current rate of pay. There are also new requirements in the program that must be met by both recipients and providers in order to receive services: all providers must go through a criminal background check process, including fingerprinting; all program applicants and recipients must be fingerprinted and must place a fingerprint signature on each timesheet submitted for payment. It also requires counties to conduct unannounced home visits.
In the abstract, some of this seems to make sense. We don’t want health providers with criminal backgrounds coming into the homes of vulnerable people and exploiting or harming them. Except that the majority of providers are actually family members or immediate relatives of the PWD and the fingerprints can take up to 9-12 months to be cleared by the state, causing huge delays for PWDs who need vital services and delays in bringing often essential income to low-income families. (Not to mention how low-income people of color are likely disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and subject to criminal penalties.) It also seems reasonable to ensure that scarce service dollars are actually going to people who need and deserve them, rather than people receiving them fraudulently. But there has been a lot of research on IHSS fraud in the past, and it simply does not seem to be very prevalent: an audit released last year (pdf link) found a fraud rate of only 1% in the program. A recent program in Sacramento turned up similarly low levels of program fraud: “The Sacramento County District Attorney, who received more than $3 million from the state for anti-fraud efforts, reported last week that after four months her office had uncovered a total of 19 cases of fraud out of more than 42,000 homecare clients in the County.” That’s a rate of 0.04%. And if we estimate that each of those 19 cases fradulently took $10,000 a year from the state, that $190,000 in fraudulent benefits is dwarfed by the $3 million spent to identify that fraud.
So – these changes and programs are not about protecting recipients. They’re not about preventing widespread rampant fraud. What are they about? Some testimony at a recent legislative hearing sheds some light:
Nancy Jo Riley of San Diego testified that she and her client were “randomly selected” for a fraud investigation last October as part of a new “anti-fraud” initiative by the state. According to Ms. Riley, the agent from the Department of Health Care Services (DCHS) first threatened in a phone call to cut off all IHSS unless she and her client met with him immediately. At the subsequent meeting, the investigator asked her and her client a long series of “humiliating” questions. He then said he could not understand why a person with a severe disability like his should be subject to a fraud investigation in the first place. He also said that her client, whose hands are frozen in a fist-like position because of his disability, would “probably” be exempted from new fingerprint requirements for homecare consumers.
These rules are an effort to make it harder for people to get services or to continue receiving services. They are an effort to erect barriers to service so substantial that PWDs cannot surmount them. They designed to humiliate and shame recipients for their disability status, to force them to prove themselves, their disabilities, and their functional impairments over and over again. They don’t even make sense from a cost perspective, as they spend far more in detection than is saved by the fraud they ostensibly prevent. They’re not targeting people who are fraudulently receiving services. They are targeting the very people the program is supposed to help.