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Originally published January 29, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified February 6, 2012 at 11:52 AM

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Fighting fraud in public assistance, from debit cards to child care

State lawmakers, guided by state Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, are looking at ways to tighten laws for public assistance provided via debit cards and oversight of child-care payments. They should do so.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ENSURING that scarce public resources reach those who most need help is a daunting challenge, especially in hard times.

State Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, is building on successful efforts in the 2011 legislative session to promote improvements and toughen the law.

Last year, Carrell worked with state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, to create the Office of Fraud and Accountability in the Department of Social and Health Services to track the abuse of electronic benefit cards for food stamps and financial assistance.

Carrell is back this session with Senate Bill 6386, which seeks "to significantly reduce fraud and to ensure that public assistance dollars reach the intended populations in need."

State law already tells cardholders and a variety of establishments of the consequences, and harsher penalties, for using or allowing the electronic cards in ATMs or to buy a drink, place a bet or get a tattoo.

Pieces of the bill are still in play, such as the wording related to creation of PIN numbers for identification purposes and application of tougher penalties.

One financially dubious idea would require photographs on cards. A companion measure, House Bill 1927, would also require a picture on all benefit cards for public assistance.

There are doubts about the value for enforcement purposes. The stunning cost to put the photo-ID plan in place and maintain it is a non-starter. A legislative fiscal note estimates a first-year cost of $17.6 million to get started, and tens of millions more per biennium in the future.

Vulnerable, homeless populations lose cards with regularity. Replacement efforts already consume staff time and administrative overhead. Photos only add to the expense. Fraud investigators are already tracking patterns of multiple "lost" cards. Basic rules regarding replacement cards are a federal issue.

The proposed law appropriately seeks to limit card use, but the rules should also provide for identifying family members who can shop for food and help those with disabilities.

Focus attention on key provisions in SB 6386, such as tightening oversight of state payments for child care. The annual bill runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars spread across 19,000 licensed and exempt providers.

An "Audit of State Payments to Child Care Providers" by state Auditor Brian Sonntag's office found a stunningly casual process wide open to the most creative exploitation.

Families struggling to hold jobs, raise kids and go to school benefit from the help. The problem is an informal accounting process that has providers billing the state for whatever they choose to submit.

The legislation supports a practical change to benefit investigators: immediate access to records. The law now provides for a 14-day delay, and experience shows the billing information has a way of disappearing or being revised.

Carrell is intent on giving the DSHS fraud investigators, led by Steve Lowe, a former Franklin County prosecutor, the tools they need. Carrell has high praise for Lowe and the new focus on fraud.

Elements of SB 6386 are a work in progress, but the emphasis on giving taxpayers value for their dollars and getting money to those in need is evident.

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