The Mississippi Department of Human Services’ computer eligibility system has been operational for almost 40 years. We are building components as we can afford them while continuing to maintain system integrity. A new system would cost more than $100 million and may take more than 12 years before being fully operational. However, the current eligibility process is designed to aggressively eliminate fraud prior to approval through probative interviews, multiple layers of online matches and manual verification procedures.
The state has been recognized for 10 consecutive years as one of the top four in the nation in the areas of payment accuracy, timeliness in application processing and program access. We take our work seriously for the customers needing the services we offer, as well as the taxpayers who fund the programs.
Integrity is the cornerstone of the MDHS values. The agency has pursued every opportunity to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse to ensure those truly in need of a “hand up” have access to the temporary and supplemental benefits in their quest for self-reliance. We, along with four sister states, were the first to demand from our federal partners a centralized database for the SNAP recipients. Common sense would seem to be for all states to report their SNAP and TANF information to one national system. However, that is not the case.
Mississippi took the lead in the National Accuracy Clearinghouse. It took two years of planning and four years of testing for the federal oversight agency to deem the pilot a success and “allow the state” to move forward to determine if other states would “like to participate” with no additional federal support. So, once again, Mississippi is leading the charge to build a coalition of states in an effort to bring all recipients into this system. Many states have rejected the offer due to concerns about the cost of the system being placed on the state rather than the federal government, where it belongs.
A recent opinion (Forum, March 8, by Jameson Taylor, vice president for policy at the Mississippi Center for Public Policy: “Mississippi’s honor system for welfare does not work”) suggested “Trust, but verify. Seems like common sense.” MDHS staff are fully aware that trust alone is not enough for the required eligibility components of an application. We must verify.
In 2016, applications were denied for about 36,155 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) and 11,079 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF cash assistance) applicants. SNAP is for food assistance and TANF is designed for households where a child is deprived of one or both of the parents. Both programs are 100 percent federally funded.
MDHS continues to evolve into a workforce-development hub for those who seek services through our offices. As a part of that evolution, Mississippi made the decision not to seek the Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents waiver offered. More than 80,000 people made the decision not to participate by not attending their scheduled appointment. This has resulted in a decrease in the SNAP by more than $12 million each month.
State legislators nationally are restricted by overarching federal laws that regulate these programs as well as many others. There is a great opportunity for Congress to make some tough but much-needed changes in the direction of these two programs that are up for reauthorization.
The burden of the expense for new systems and data matches should not be placed on each state. We should ask our federal partners to implement strong policies that would address a nationwide system that would provide these program-integrity measures. We should also ask why federal agencies are not implementing more aggressive measures for fraud prevention and system enhancements if fraud is so prevalent.
At MDHS we are committed to ensuring the highest standard of excellence in the federal programs we administer.
John Davis is executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.