Millions wasted in welfare programs

TheStar.com – News/Ontario – Millions wasted in welfare programs: Failure to clamp down on overpayments, fraud undermines the war on poverty, auditor says
Published On Tue Dec 08 2009.  Rob Ferguson, Tanya Talaga Queen’s Park Bureau

The Ontario government’s war against poverty would help more people if officials clamped down on $1.2 billion in waste, overpayments and fraud in welfare and disability support programs, Auditor General Jim McCarter says.

His annual report, released Monday, found that despite public outrage over recent expense scandals at eHealth and Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., there is still room for improvement in how the province spends taxpayers’ money.

He urged government staffers to “spend the taxpayers’ money like it is their own.”

In one example, a family on disability support was paid $100,000 more than it was entitled to after the community and social services ministry “ignored” five complaints over several years from tipsters.

That money is part of $663 million in overpayments, up about 42 per cent since the last audit in 2004, with the prospect of more because 37,000 of the 250,000 people getting money under the $3 billion annual program are up to seven years overdue for medical reassessments to determine if they remain eligible.

Another $600 million, an increase of 45 per cent since 2002, has been spent on welfare overpayments because of a poor record of checking eligibility – in some cases with no proof of identity or legal status in Canada – compounded by only “minimal efforts” to get the money returned, McCarter found.

There is little hope of that, he said.

“Given the clientele, once you’ve paid the money out it’s very difficult to get it back,” the veteran auditor told a news conference after releasing his 500-page report.

Front-line welfare workers for the province and municipalities must closely monitor applicants and verify their incomes and circumstances with independent third parties to make sure they are eligible for financial aid, he said.

“If we tighten down and make sure that only people entitled to get money actually get the money, it does give the government some flexibility to when they are looking to make sure they can look after the people who really need the money,” McCarter said.

The government “has a lot to do,” said Community and Social Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur, noting there is now a financial “recovery unit” and officials have referred 2,300 questionable welfare and disability support cases to the Ontario Provincial Police for investigation.

Anti-poverty activist John Stapleton, a member of the government’s new welfare review committee, said many “overpayments” are actually adjustments made after someone on welfare gets a job or income from another government program. It doesn’t necessarily mean “someone has scammed the system or cheated it,” he added.

The Liberals have launched an anti-poverty effort, saying one in eight Ontario children live in families that can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables, to replace a broken appliance or to share the occasional meal with friends or family. The government’s response has included the acceleration of the Ontario Child Benefit to $1,100 per child annually, commitment to full-day learning for 4- and 5-year-olds next fall, and promised tax relief.

McCarter took issue with the special dietary allowances of up to $250 a month given to people on welfare with health problems, noting the cost to taxpayers has risen to $67 million a year from $5 million six years ago. The allowance is given to people with a doctor’s note.

His audit found many “questionable” claims, such as a large family where everyone had been diagnosed with the same medical conditions.

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