Montgomery County battles welfare fraud

FONDA — Officials in Montgomery County are touting a new approach to fighting welfare fraud, more prevention and better investigations.

Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said his county has rebuilt its welfare fraud unit, taking it from six part-time investigators to now three part-time investigators and two full-time positions a social welfare examiner and a full-time supervisor. Ossenfort said these changes came about in part because the county lost one of its veteran welfare fraud investigators, Michael Villa, who became the mayor of Amsterdam. After that departure, Ossenfort said he began discussions with County Department of Social Services Commissioner Michael McMahon about how to retool the unit to aggressively pursue fraud.

“It’s good to see things go from a discussion to the point now where we’re starting to see some results and a better way forward, and I think it’s a compliment to the commissioner that he’s been willing to make changes and get a better result,” Ossenfort said. “Having two full-time people dedicated to it is a big difference from six part-time people.”

So far, Ossenfort said arrests for fraud are trending up, with seven arrests made in February. He said under the old structure the fraud unit averaged six to 12 arrests per quarter.

One of the key aspects of the change is the emphasis the social welfare examiner will place on preventing inaccurate or fraudulent applications for benefits.

“The social welfare examiner … will look at eligibilities and analyze the applications. They are the ones who can spot potential issues that might need to be investigated. Having a dedicated person focusing specifically on this was a good step, rather than the previous way of doing it where there were a number of different people handling the case,” Ossenfort said.

Money saved from fraud preventative measures can add up. Montgomery County Communications Specialist Andrew Santillo said the New York state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance confirmed in a letter dated March 22 that Montgomery County’s Front End Detection System saved taxpayers $411,000 by preventing false or inaccurate applications in 2016.

“I think perception is reality, and we want to make sure that people understand that we are going to have a zero tolerance stand on this, while being perfect and trying to catch every person who is trying to defraud the system will be a challenge, we want people to know that we are looking for this and doing everything in our power to stop it,” Ossenfort said.

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