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Welfare fraud feared worse

| Tuesday, May 29, 2012, 9:44 p.m.

HARRISBURG - Auditor General Jack Wagner on Tuesday commended the Department of Public Welfare for uncovering almost $1 million in fraud by out-of-state residents using state-issued welfare debit cards, but he said the problem could be much worse than that.

Wagner said his audit of one month of 2011 found more than $5 million in out-of-state charges paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers.

A key reason for the difference: Wagner found most of the fraud in states surrounding Pennsylvania. The welfare report released yesterday covers only non-border states; neighboring states are slated for the next phase of review, a department spokeswoman said.

"The department's review of out-of-state welfare spending will soon expand to neighboring states, and we will conduct reviews anywhere we see an inconsistency," Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander said.

Wagner's audit covered 50 states and Puerto Rico, and dealt with more than 100,000 transactions.

The Department of Public Welfare said it began a residency review in February and found 653 people fraudulently collected benefits while living out of state. The department stopped providing benefits to those people. Some of the cases will be referred to the state Inspector General's Office, said Carey Miller, a department spokeswoman.

Melissa Yerges, spokeswoman for the inspector general, said investigators would review any "overpayments," and they would refer them to district attorneys if necessary.

Eva Stevenson of Brentwood said the department's findings are upsetting.

"I have worked for 30 years and am now starting to get painful arthritis, but I still crawl up a hill to get a bus to go to work, and hearing that 600 people were getting free money and food really angers me," she said.

Alexander pledged to solve the problem, saying he "will leave no stone unturned when it comes to rooting out fraud, waste and abuse."

The state issued 1.8 million debit cards for food benefits and 212,347 for cash benefits in April 2012, the department said.

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