Stacey Monahan, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, sat down with both iBerkshires and WAMC public radio to discuss the department on Tuesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Last May, Auditor Suzanne Bump released a scathing audit of the Department of Transitional Assistance, claiming there were thousands of lost EBT cards and benefits being paid to thousands of dead people.
That came on the heels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture demanding to be repaid $27 million in misappropriated benefits, which led to the resignation of the Commissioner Daniel J. Curley.
Gov. Deval Patrick appointed Stacey Monahan as the next commissioner just two months before the audit report was publicly released. The Legislature and the governor tasked her to regain the trust of the taxpayers.
"The governor tasked us to turn this department around and with that leadership and vision, we've been able to do tremendous things in the last 16 months," Monahan said in an interview at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Tuesday when she came to the city to honor clients who have been successful.
The department launched a 100-day action plan to combat misuse last year and the efforts are ongoing.
"I think DTA will look like a totally different place in January 2015 than it does today," she said.
One effort is blocking the use of welfare benefits at establishments such as liquor stores. Monahan says she receives a report every two weeks of where transactions are being done, sorts them and then investigators visit each person indicated.
"When I started a year ago February, I got a report every two weeks on every cash transaction in Massachusetts. Then we started putting them in buckets — so if it is Bob's liquor store, we put it in the liquor store bucket — and to date we've reviewed 5.5 million transactions. We've gone to over 1,500 retail establishments. We do a review of the store, we don't just block it because of its name," she said, later adding that "we blocked over 1,000 locations where people can't withdraw cash or can't make a purchase."
But Monahan recognizes that those efforts are a "reactive system" and said other initiatives have been launched to be more proactive. The department is now getting notifications of licenses for such things as salons and blocking those point-of-sale systems immediately.
The department has armed its investigators with EBT cards with no cash value, asking them to attempt to make purchases at places where it is illegal to use them, and taking the data from that and blocking the systems.
"We're trying to do things that are a little more proactive," she said.
As for recipients,all of the program eligibility requirements have been put into one place, whereas before the paperwork was scattered across different offices.
"You are not able to put someone on benefits or recertify their case unless all of those matches are dispositioned," Monahan said. "So, it is just a lot of the front-end stuff to make sure we are up to date on people and their circumstances and that we are ensuring that only the right people are getting benefits."
The audit also led to a dramatic increase in investigators to root out misspent funds. Since Monahan was appointed, the number of investigators has grown from four to 18. And the department is working with local police departments in allowing them to perform investigations.
"We can actually provide them with EBT cards so they can do undercover investigations at retailers who we think could be participating in SNAP trafficking, which is when someone sells their food-stamp benefits for cash. We have more than 100 police departments who have signed agreements with us," she said, adding that the department holds summits with police to explain the system.
Also, the department is requiring anyone who replaces a "lost" card four times in a year to meet with the director and investigators perform a review of the transactions to root out trafficking.
"If someone gets four replacement cards in 12 months, they actually have to meet with the director of the office and they pull up the transaction history and look for patterns of SNAP trafficking," she said. "We've seen a decrease of 86 percent in high-volume replacements."
In the last month, the state Senate and House of Representatives reached and passed a new welfare reform bill. Monahan says it mirrors a lot of what the department is doing because she has been working alongside the Legislature.
"We've worked really hard to partner with the Legislature. We have more than 70 members of the House and Senate who actually spend the day with me at a DTA office where we go in and go through clients who are applying for cash assistance benefits so they can actually see our eligibility system and see all of the matches to come up," she said.
"The pending legislation that passed both the House and the Senate actually codifies a lot of the things the department has been doing over the last 16 months. We've been working collaboratively and there is a lot of enhancements for work opportunities for people."
That bill calls for even more investigators, which will staff each of the 22 offices across the state.
But while 2013 started the focus on gaining the public's trust back, 2014 has had an additional focus of running a leaner department, Monahan said. In January, the department began a new electronic document management system, scanning more than a million client documents onto its servers.
"It is making it easier for our staff to track documents and keep documents," she said. "Clients who are determined eligible are getting their benefits more quickly and it has been easier for our staff."
And the department has rededicated itself to helping people get into education programs. In the last year, an engagement officer has been assigned to each office with the focus of finding work and education for clients.
"We are really working to rehab the employment opportunities and training for our clients. Over the last year, we've put full engagement workers in every DTA office. Those are the people whose job is to be connected with the communities, seek out internships and do one-on-one placements," Monahan said.
Locally that task can prove to be more difficult because of transportation, according to Pittsfield Director Nathan Skrocki.
"One of the unique challenges to Berkshire County in general is transportation. Whether it be coming to our office or just finding jobs in general and getting to those jobs. We don't have the same type of transportation system that some of the other cities in the state has," Skrocki said.
DTA has an office in Pittsfield and a satellite in North Adams. Skrocki says the local office goes out of its way to be available to all of the 9,000 clients here.
"We serve folks throughout the entire county," Skrocki said. "We try to be accessible to everybody in the county."
Outside of that, the department has taken a stronger approach to promoting healthy eating. DTA now gives healthy eating and cooking demonstrations at farmers' markets, helping the markets transition into accepting the benefits and later this year will pilot a program to allow the benefits to purchase community-supported agriculture shares.
"We are really trying to work toward getting people healthy food," Monahan said.