A new report released Thursday has identified numerous problems with Maine’s various welfare programs and identified several potential avenues for reforming the system.
The report was produced by the Alexander Group, a consulting firm hired by the LePage administration to conduct a review of Maine’s welfare system.
The 228-page analysis of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and General Assistance programs follows an earlier report from the group which focused on Medicaid, known in Maine as MaineCare, and proposals to expand the medical welfare program.
Although the report is mostly technocratic policy analysis and recommendations, Democratic officials and liberal pundits have sought to create controversy around it, suggesting that the $925,000 paid by Maine and the federal government to the Alexander Group was too expensive.
The latest report bolsters recent LePage administration efforts to reform welfare by combating fraud, waste and abuse within the DHHS-administered programs.
As with the earlier report on Medicaid and Medicaid expansion, the Alexander Group recommends pursuing a “Global Waiver” from the federal government. Obtaining a global waiver would essentially allow the state to implement system-wide reform of the entire program, rather than nibble around the edges with minor reforms. As the report states, “Without reforms across the entire enterprise, MaineCare’s ability to serve the most vulnerable of populations – namely the intellectually disabled and indigent elderly – stands at risk, even as more and more of the abled-bodied population are added to the caseload.”
According to the report, securing a global reform waiver, as Rhode Island did successfully in 2009, “offers the best mechanism for Maine to redesign its MaineCare program, its payment structures and entire system, and secure its future.”
“Maine needs the flexibility to create and manage a Medicaid program that is consistent with the state’s needs and culture,” the report states.
For TANF, a program that offers cash benefits to low-income families, the report recommends implementing a front-end work search for benefit applicants, a reform similar to a bill pushed by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette (R-Newport) and LePage. That proposal was ultimately defeated by Democrats in the legislature.
The report also calls for expanded coordination between DHHS, the Department of Labor and the Department of Education in order to “strengthen welfare-to-work initiatives.” Additionally, the group recommends adoption of “universal engagement” for all TANF recipients so that “no recipient is exempt from ASPIRE-TANF participation requirements.”
Many of these recommendations aim at increasing Maine’s TANF work participation rate. Maine’s TANF-WPR has, in recent years, dropped so low as to risk multi-million dollar fines from the federal government.
As for SNAP, the report calls for aggressive implementation of front-end detection protocols. This would include computer systems that can cross-check a benefit application with previous applications and/or applications in other states. The aim, according to the report, is to prevent fraud and abuse before it occurs by filtering out ineligible applicants.
The report also suggests that Maine should seek participation in a ten-state pilot program provided for under the federal 2014 Farm Bill. That pilot program allows states to engage work-ready adults in mandatory work programs. “If Maine successfully competed for the pilot program,” the report states, “the caseload would not only expand the number of working SNAP households, but would likely reduce the SNAP caseload because more recipients would have access to paid employment presumably at wages that eliminate their eligibility for SNAP.”
The third SNAP reform recommended under the report is a narrowing of the definition of categorically eligible households to those that have already met one of the federally defined means-tested programs. In other words, this change would require applicants who have not entered a means-tested program to meet income and asset limits of $2,000 in order to obtain SNAP benefits.
Perhaps the most intriguing reform recommendations pertain to General Assistance programs administered by cities and towns — but funded by the state.
One major problem the Alexander Group identifies is the lack of safeguards against duplication of benefits. According to the report, “There is no uniformity in eligibility and benefit criteria, there is no audit system to track if and when recipients are accessing payments through more than one municipality, and there is no data-tracking system to flag duplication of benefits issued by both state and municipal systems.”
The Alexander Group recommends moving the General Assistance program to a block grant, whereby the state gives each municipality a set amount of funding every year for the program. Block grant levels would be determined based on previous years’ expenditures. This move would give municipalities an incentive to be cost-effective, whereas the current system allows them to dispense benefits without limit and hand the state the tab.
Overall, the Alexander Group report is a comprehensive analysis that provides an wealth of information and ideas to lawmakers who are interested in improving Maine’s welfare system, making it more efficient, and ensuring it meets the needs of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens. But in the short-term, the report is likely to become a political football, as opponents of the LePage administration seek to discredit the report and cast it as a taxpayer-funded campaign talking point.
See the report here:
This story will be updated.