Schenectady County’s Department of Social Services paid benefits to 19 jail inmates totaling in the thousands of dollars even though they weren’t entitled to receive assistance during their period of incarceration, an audit by the state Comptroller’s Office found.
The audit determined social services paid the inmates $9,076 in Safety Net Assistance and other welfare benefits between January 2011 and February 2013. The probe also found five inmates received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits totaling $1,218 and 13 inmates who improperly remained eligible for Medicaid benefits. Also, six inmates received improper Medicaid benefits totalling $4,994.
The audit urged county officials to investigate the appropriateness of the social welfare benefits provided to county inmates in a more timely manner and ensure social services staff uses the daily inmate rosters forwarded to them by the Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department to monitor inmate eligibility. Schenectady County’s jail normally houses more than 300 inmates.
The audit was among five conducted by the Comptroller’s Office, which found that hundreds of inmates received inappropriate payments totaling more than $236,000 from various social welfare programs and almost $325,000 in state unemployment insurance. The inappropriate benefits were caused by deficiencies in how four of the five counties included in the probe monitored inmates’ eligibility for welfare payments, the audit said.
“The state’s social welfare and unemployment insurance programs are supposed to provide a safety net for society’s poor and unemployed to help them make ends meet, not provide jailed criminals with a free ride,” Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a news release. “Counties working together with state policy makers and state agencies need to do a better job making sure inappropriate payments are stopped and that only the truly deserving get help.”
County social services departments typically seek to suspend welfare benefits after a person is incarcerated by halting payments before the next benefit payment cycle. Inmates are able to receive Medicaid assistance for their first 30 days of incarceration, but lose this benefit for jail stays that are longer.
In Schenectady County, a total inmate population report goes to the social service’s fraud unit daily and to Safety Net Assistance staff twice per week. On average, it took the county less than 40 days to conduct investigations and cease payments for inappropriate benefits, according to the audit.
The audit did not fault officials at the jail. Rather, it found the county’s internal control procedures did not prevent inappropriate benefit payments from reaching inmates.
One individual jailed from April 2012 until July 2012 received $1,310 in inappropriate benefit payments during the 98-day incarceration. County officials cut off the benefits of another inmate incarcerated between February 2012 and June 2012, but failed to do so for two months that resulted in $640 in inappropriate benefits.
In a response to the audit, Schenectady County Manager Kathleen Rooney said the controls in place to prevent inmates from wrongly getting benefits works 97 percent of the time and has helped prevent payouts to ineligible individuals. She said the comptroller’s findings amounted to less than one-tenth of a percent of the estimated $6 million in Safety Net benefits the county pays out annually.
Rooney also said the county is seeking to recoup $1,700 of the Safety Net payments. She said $4,620 was paid to landlords or service providers, while another $2,756 was paid to individuals no longer incarcerated.
“In summary, we believe the Schenectady County Department of Social Services had an effective system in place,” she wrote. “However, the Office of the State Comptroller audit process generated new thinking resulting in further system enhancements, which we anticipate will result in cost savings for the taxpayers of Schenectady County.”