April 2011 Column - Reforms Designed to Restore Accountability and Integrity to Pennsylvania’s Welfare System
By Dave Hickernell, state representative
98th Legislative District
As we work to pass a budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, my colleagues and I should seek to gain maximum efficiency from every taxpayer dollar. That means eliminating waste, fraud and abuse at every level of government.
One example is the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), which consumes about one-third of the state budget. Pennsylvania’s welfare system was designed to provide assistance to individuals and families. While many of the people served by DPW are truly needy, there are others who are defrauding the system to obtain benefits they do not deserve. Their abuse of the welfare system takes hundreds of millions of dollars away from families who desperately need them.
Clearly, our welfare system is in need of serious reform. As we consider cuts to state spending, we must take steps to eliminate the fraud and abuse which costs Pennsylvania taxpayers millions of dollars each year while continuing to ensure that the safety net for those truly in need is maintained.
We have already begun reforming the welfare system. Recently, the House passed House Bill 1251 to strengthen penalties for those convicted of more than $1,000 worth of welfare fraud by increasing the offense to a third-degree felony. This bill, of which I was a co-sponsor, brings the Welfare Code into line with existing penalties in the Crimes Code and sends the clear message that fraud and abuse of Pennsylvania’s welfare system will not be tolerated. Any serious effort to deter fraud and abuse in the welfare system, must make it clear that anyone who attempts to steal from the system and waste taxpayer dollars will be severely punished. That is what this legislation does.
In addition, the bill clarifies existing law on welfare fraud to include the use of benefit access devices such as ACCESS cards or EBT cards, which are debit cards that allow recipients of public assistance benefits to authorize transfer of funds from their account to a retailer account to pay for products received. Pennsylvania law concerning welfare fraud was written before ACCESS cards even existed. This legislation brings the welfare code up to date with current technology.
The House also passed House Bill 1261. This bill, of which I am also a co-sponsor, limits the ability of welfare applicants to shop for higher benefit amounts in neighboring counties by requiring DPW to base benefit amounts on an applicant’s county of permanent legal residence.
The House passed two other welfare reform bills I co-sponsored. House Bill 1297 institutes drug testing for applicants convicted of a drug felony within the past five years and House Bill 1312 assists people in moving from welfare to work with job transition loans, rather than the current grant program.
The bills we passed are four elements of the House Republican WelFAIR package which seeks to restore fairness, accountability, integrity and responsibility to Pennsylvania’s welfare system. I am a co-sponsor of all the bills in the WelFAIR package which also includes:
- House Bill 1254, which would prohibit the purchase of tobacco products with Access cards.
- House Bill 392, which would require photo identification on welfare benefit cards.
- House Bill 960, which would create an Income Eligibility Verification System.
- House Bill 1301, which would implement new guidelines and restrictions on the existing Medical Assistance Transportation Program.
These bills are not an effort to deny benefits to anyone who is truly in need. Anyone who is abiding by the law and legally receiving benefits, has nothing to fear from the welfare reforms we have offered. However, anyone who is defrauding the Commonwealth and stealing welfare benefits from those who are truly needy can expect to be prosecuted and punished for their illegal behavior.
For more information on the House Republican WelFAIR package, visit http://welfair.pahousegop.com/.
State Representative Dave Hickernell
98th District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Contact: Sean Yeakle