DSHS overpayments bill clears Senate

Analysis finds mistakes in benefits are rare for agency

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter



Legislative update

Here is a list of bills making it out of their house of origin by the Tuesday cutoff:

Theater liquor licenses: House Bill 2558 to allow single-screen theaters such as Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver to serve alcohol in the auditorium.

Columbia River Crossing tolls: Senate Bill 6445 to give state transportation officials the authority to establish tolls on the project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

Student athletes: Senate Bill 6383 to require the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to lighten up on punishments to student athletes when their coach, administrator or other adult associated with the team violates WIAA eligibility rules.

Police dogs: House Bill 2191 to create a $5,000 fine for harming a police dog and a $10,000 fine for killing a police dog. It would remove police dogs from vicious animal statutes.

Yellow Dot program: House Bill 2280 to allows drivers with disabilities to put a yellow sticker on their car window alerting emergency responders to check the glove box for helpful information, such as a list of the driver’s medications.

Tax breaks: Senate Bill 6088 to put expiration dates on some tax breaks that lawmakers create, as well as require lawmakers to document the purpose of new tax breaks when creating them.

Government contracts: House Bill 2452 to crack down on government contract abuses, as well as streamline the contracting process in a way that makes it easier for small businesses to participate.

Gun safes: Senate Bill 5697, which was prompted by the September 2010 death of former Clark County Sheriff’s deputy Ed Owens’ son, would require more testing of locks on gun safes given to law enforcement officers for home use.

State benefit overpayments: Senate Bill 6508 to ensure 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.

University funding: House Bill 2265 to reform how the state funds four-year universities in a way that rewards colleges that have higher graduation rates, more graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds and more graduates in high-demand fields such as math and science.

Executive session video: Senate Bill 6109 to block public records requests for video and audio recordings of closed executive sessions.

Student career paths: House Bill 2170 to require public schools to place a greater emphasis on student career paths that don’t necessarily require four-year degrees, such as technical degrees or trade apprenticeships.

Disciplining health professionals: House Bill 2578 to suspend the licenses of health care workers who are under investigation for neglect or abuse of a vulnerable adult.

College building projects: House Bill 2735 to speed up some college construction projects by allowing more expensive projects to skip some preliminary planning steps.

Discovery information: House Bill 2195 to adopt the federal Uniform Interstate Depositions and Discovery Act, which makes it easier for legal parties outside Washington to obtain discovery information in a court case.

Electronic correspondence: House Bill 2485 to allow schools’ financial paperwork to be sent electronically to county treasurers, who are charged with overseeing public school expenses.

Pharmacists’ inclusion in drug act: House Bill 2512 to include pharmacists in the Legend Drug Act, which is a law that makes it illegal to sell or have prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription.

Bills not making it out of their house of origin by the Tuesday cutoff:

Oregonians pay sales tax: Senate Bill 6061 to make Oregonians pay some retail sales tax in Washington and create a sales tax refund program for out-of-state shoppers.

State retirement plans: Senate Bill 6378 to exclude future teachers, classified school staff, some law enforcement staff, and local and state government employees from the state’s “Plan 2” retirement plan, which guarantees a certain amount of money upon retirement.

School supplies tax holiday: House Bill 2644 to create a tax holiday for back-to-school shopping with the intent to draw in more shoppers and state revenue.

Spending limit: Senate Bill 8219 to establish a state spending limit based on state population and inflation rates.

State cellphones: Senate Bill 6527 to limit the number of state employees with state-funded cellphones.

Homeowners’ associations: Senate Bill 6294 to help homeowners associations facing attendance problems because of home foreclosures.

Expanding the middle class: House Bill 2171 to require some state agencies to establish goals for increasing the percentage of Washingtonians who are considered middle-income by the federal government.

Audits in budgeting: House Bill 2281 to require the government to review audits of state agencies and include a progress report of those agencies when working on the budget.

Rule-making: House Bill 1156 to suspended most agency rule-making until July 1, or until the economy improves.

Tax incentive surveys: House Bill 2278 to require warehouses and grain elevators that get a sales and use tax break to file the same annual government survey that other businesses do.

Forest agency permitting: House Bill 1157 to lengthen the number of years a forest practice permit remains valid.

Streamlining resource management: House Bill 1162 to eliminate duplications of effort in natural resource management.

Official state language: Senate Bill 8220 to make English the state’s official language.

NOTE: If a bill doesn’t make a cutoff deadline, it doesn’t necessarily mean the bill is dead. Bills that lawmakers deem necessary to figure out the budget are exempt from cutoff dates, and language from a dead bill can be amended onto a surviving piece of legislation.

— Stevie Mathieu

The state Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow the Department of Social and Health Services to forgive benefit overpayments to low-income clients when the mistake is caused by the department. Meanwhile, an analysis of those mistakes requested by The Columbian shows that in more than 99.5 percent of all cases, no errors are made.

Senate Bill 6508, sponsored by Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, passed 31-18. It was prompted by the case of Vancouver single mother Sarah Remington, who was slapped with a $3,000 bill for overpayment in child care subsidies after an agency mistake.

The bill now proceeds to the House of Representatives for consideration.

The department now has limited discretion in forgiving overpayments. If collecting the overpayment from the client is more expen

sive than the debt, the debt can be forgiven, said Brice Montgomery, the department’s acting chief of financial recovery. Pridemore’s bill would expand that discretion to cases in which a department mistake placed a client in financial hardship.

“It’s very important to provide this assistance for people who do get caught in that unfortunate situation,” Pridemore said before the Senate voted on the bill.

A department analysis requested by The Columbian indicates such mistakes are not pervasive.

Benefit overpayments due to fraud and unintentional error account for less than 0.5 percent of all payments by the department, according to the analysis.

Between April and December, overpayments made up $4.6 million, or 0.37 percent, of $1.2 billion paid out in subsidized benefits, including child care, addiction treatment, family assistance and care for the aged and disabled, among other programs.

“The department strives for 100 percent having it right,” said Susan Engels, acting chief of the state unit on aging. “One in 300 authorizations might have an error. The error can be for a variety of reasons. That seems like a pretty reasonable error ratio.”

Although the department doesn’t routinely measure its error rate as a whole, it regularly audits specific programs for error, said Rebecca Henrie, executive assistant to the director of state community services.

The federal government has given the department performance bonuses ranging between $3 million and nearly $5 million four times in the past six years for its low margin of error in its food stamp program, Henrie said. Those were in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2009 for error rates of 1.81 percent to 3 percent.

The food stamp program and federally funded cash assistance would be exempt from Pridemore’s bill because the program is regulated by the federal government, which requires overpayments to be repaid. Those programs also were excluded from the analysis requested by The Columbian.

It’s unknown how much the bill could cost because it’s not clear what percentage of overpayments are the fault of the department. At least 32.9 percent of overpayments are the result of unintentional errors by clients or staff, according to the state Office of Financial Recovery. At least another 9.3 percent is the result of fraud. The cause of the remaining 57.8 percent of overpayments is unknown because some of the department’s programs use electronic reporting systems that don’t include an explanation for overpayment.

It’s also unclear whether the department would elect to use its new discretionary power to pardon debts, if the legislation were to become law. Montgomery said repayment of overpayments go back into the pool of benefits, which can be used by eligible clients in need.

“That reduces our overall operating costs,” Montgomery said.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he opposed Pridemore’s bill because it passes the burden of repayment on to taxpayers.

“This is the people’s money we are talking about, and I think there are other ways of dealing with this, maybe extending the length of time for repayment,” Padden said.

Remington could not be reached for comment Tuesday via phone or Facebook.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.">href="http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.">http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.