Analysis examines errors in DSHS aid

Lawmakers weigh if clients must refund overpayments

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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At least 32.9 percent of benefit overpayments by the state Department of Social and Health Services are the result of unintentional errors by clients or staff, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the agency’s Office of Financial Recovery.

The analysis was requested by Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, to help senators decide how to vote on a bill by Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, to pardon clients from having to pay the state back for benefits granted due to errors by DSHS staff. Pridemore’s Senate Bill 6508 was passed out of the Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee Feb. 2 and awaits a full Senate vote.

The analysis revealed about 3,354 cases of overpayments, worth $4.6 million, between April and December. That figure excludes overpayment of food stamps and rental assistance; federal law requires those to be paid back regardless of fault.

Brice Montgomery, acting chief of financial recovery, said the April-to-December time period was chosen due to an upgrade in coding in April.

“That is the earliest (time period) we could get clean data,” Montgomery said.

Nevertheless, the analysis paints a hazy picture of how much the bill would cost the state and sheds no light on the department’s rate of accuracy in determining eligibility for programs such as child care subsidies, family

assistance and help for the elderly and disabled. That’s because the department’s reporting systems are not uniform, Montgomery said. Reporting systems for some of the agency’s programs include a field for whether overpayment was the result of fraud or an honest mistake, but others do not, he said.

From the data that is available, the financial recovery office has gleaned that at least $609,045, or 32.9 percent, of the $4.6 million in overpayments were the result of unintentional errors either by the client or agency staff. The department doesn’t classify how many of the unintentional overpayments are the fault of the agency rather than the client, Montgomery said.

At least 9.3 percent, or $446,233, was the result of fraud. What happened with the remaining 57.8 percent of overpayments, equal to about $3.6 million, is unknown. That’s because the cases were reported electronically without an explanation about whether the overpayment resulted from fraud or a mistake.

Senate Bill 6508 was prompted by the case of Vancouver single mother Sarah Remington. Due to an agency error, Remington received nearly $3,000 in child care subsidies for her 2-year-old son, Jacob, for which she was ineligible. The subsidies helped pay for Jacob’s child care while Remington worked as a therapeutic case manager for Vancouver’s Columbia River Mental Health. After the agency discovered its mistake, it stopped giving Remington the subsidy and then sent her a bill demanding the money. Remington has said she had no idea she no longer qualified for the subsidy because she had undergone an eligibility review by the agency after securing employment at the nonprofit mental health clinic.

Remington struggled to provide child care for her son after her income was deemed to be slightly too high to qualify for the subsidy. She cleaned bathrooms at Wendy’s Teddy Bear Day Care in Vancouver to help pay for the cost of child 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 Tuesday via phone or Facebook; her phone number is out of service.

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