Pridemore targets DSHS mistake

Senator sponsors bill after agency demands $3,000 it overpaid single mother

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Clients who were mistakenly overpaid benefits by the state Department of Social and Health Services would not have to repay the money when the error is the agency’s fault, under legislation introduced by Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver.

Senate Bill 6508 was passed out of the Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee on Thursday and now is headed for a vote by the Senate.

Pridemore was spurred to propose the bill after reading in The Columbian about the case of Vancouver single mother Sarah Remington. Due to an error by the Department of Social and Health Services, she received nearly $3,000 in child care subsidies for her 2-year-old son, Jacob, while she worked as a case manager for a nonprofit mental health clinic. After the department’s Office of Financial Recovery discovered the mistake, it sent Remington a bill demanding the money.

“Here you have the case of a parent struggling to make ends meet, who received assistance the state assured the mother she qualified for, only to get hit with a $3,000 bill that was not her fault and which she has no way of paying,” Pridemore said in a statement Friday. “She’s not alone. Thousands of Washingtonians are on the edge in this economy, and the last thing any of them need is for an innocent mistake by DSHS to push them over the edge.”

There have been 1,354 cases of overpayment to child care subsidy recipients since Oct. 4, according to the Office of Financial Recovery. While much of the $2.5 million in overpaid subsidies are a result of fraud or consumer

mistakes in reporting their financial information, some of the overpayments are the result of department errors.

Pridemore’s bill would prod the department to forgo efforts to recover overpayments that are not the client’s fault. Though the department currently has the option to forgive overpayments, it defaults toward requiring repayment, Pridemore said. His bill would shift the onus to the agency when the overpayment is the agency’s mistake.

Remington struggled to provide child care for her son at Wendy’s Teddy Bear Day Care after her income was deemed to be slightly too great to qualify for the subsidy. She cleaned bathrooms at the child care center to help pay for the cost of care two days a week. Jacob stayed with family members for the other three days of the week. It was during that time that Remington received the bill from the agency for $3,000. Remington could not be reached Friday; her phone number was no longer in service.

“We’re talking about people who need every cent they can get and who would not have spent that money if the state hadn’t told them it was theirs to spend,” Pridemore said. “It’s not healthy for the state, much less the recipients and their children, for the state to demand families repay money they do not have and cannot afford and was spent through no fault of theirs.”

The Office of Financial Recovery is calculating how many overpayments are intentional and unintentional in response to a request from Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said Brice Montgomery, the office’s acting chief. However, the office doesn’t classify how many of the unintentional overpayments are the fault of the Department of Social and Health Services rather than the client’s, Montgomery said. The information is expected to be available Monday, he said.

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