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Leaders have been obsessed with preventing welfare fraud among poor; not so much among wealthy

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State legislative leaders spent an inordinate amount of time in 2017 passing the Medicaid and Human Services Transparency and Fraud Prevention Act to put in place additional reporting requirements and other safeguards to ensure poor Mississippians were not getting benefits some feared they did not deserve.

“We (Mississippians) have the second-lowest work participation rate in the country,” Jameson Taylor, then vice president for policy research with the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, told the Heartland Institute at the time. “Welfare is a trap. We want to help move people from dependency to dignity, and from poverty to prosperity. That’s what these reforms do. They will also save the state money by kicking fraudsters off our rolls.”

Around the same time that legislators and others were concerned about fraud related to poor Mississippians who were receiving government assistance, $1.3 million in welfare funds were diverted to then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ fitness trainer, Paul Lacoste, who used $300,000 of those funds to pay himself a salary and another $70,000 to purchase a truck, according to the state auditor.

Additionally, $5 million was spent to build a volleyball court at the University of Southern Mississippi, and $1 million went to pay NFL and USM standout quarterback Brett Favre for speaking engagements that he did not make. Other welfare funds went to invest in drug research at the behest of Favre — with the blessings of former Gov. Phil Bryant. The list goes on and on and on. As much as $92 million in welfare funds could have been misspent, according to a 2020 state audit.

But legislators have yet to devote even a tiny fraction of the time addressing those misspent funds as the time they spent on the Medicaid and Human Services Transparency and Fraud Prevention Act, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Bryant and supported by Reeves, who then was lieutenant governor and is now governor.

In fairness to the Legislature, it should be pointed out that finally in the 2021 session, the welfare benefit for poor families was increased from $170 to $260 per month for a family of four. Those funds are earmarked for children and their caregivers.

Based on research done by Mississippi Today, less than 3,000 poor state residents normally receive cash benefits through the program. A study by Mississippi Today found only 5% of Mississippi’s federal block grant welfare funds went for monthly cash assistance. And until the legislation was passed in 2021, those monthly benefits for the poorest of the poor — paid entirely with federal welfare funds — were the lowest in the nation.

These are the same welfare benefits that were used to pay for the volleyball court, the fitness program and multiple other programs designed to help the supporters of Bryant, Reeves and others.

When the Medicaid and Human Services Transparency and Fraud Prevention Act was passed in 2017, one of the concerns cited was that there were dead people on the Medicaid rolls.

During debate in the Senate, then-Sen. Bill Stone, a Democrat from Holly Springs, asked of Medicaid Chair Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, “Are you talking about dead people on the rolls for Medicaid?”

Wiggins responded, “I am talking about everybody, yes. It doesn’t matter if it is dead people. It doesn’t matter if it is people double dipping. They need to be following the law.”

The benefit a Medicaid recipient receives is health care. The state Division of Medicaid pays the providers — such as doctors, hospitals and nursing homes — for providing care. Medicaid recipients do not receive any cash payments, just health care.

It is difficult to envision a person assuming the identity of a dead person on Medicaid and then going to the doctor to receive health care. Perhaps it has happened.

No doubt, Wiggins, then the chair of the Senate Medicaid Committee, knew it would be unlikely for dead people to be receiving Medicaid benefits, but just got twisted up in his explanation since the bill dealt with making sure poor people were not cheating both the Medicaid program and the Department of Human Services. And as cited earlier, some poor Mississippians do receive cash benefits through Human Services — just not very many and not very much.

Medicaid, on the other hand, is a state-federal program that provides health care for the disabled, poor pregnant women, poor children and the elderly. Most adults are not eligible for Medicaid in Mississippi.

There is a small percentage of adult caregivers of Medicaid recipients, earning less than $578 monthly for a family of four, who are eligible for Medicaid.

If Mississippi expanded Medicaid, like 38 states have, other adults, primarily the working poor, would be eligible.

But dead people need not apply. In Mississippi, it is difficult enough for living poor people to garner help.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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