Pretending to Be Poor? Go to Jail

Attorney General Jeff Landry may not have put in a personal appearance in the Senate Finance Committee Monday, but his fingerprints were all over a plan to lock up more of the state’s impoverished citizens. “This bill creates the crime of government benefits fraud, making it a crime to provide false information in order to receive government benefits,” Rep. Sherman Mack (R-Albany) said, as he introduced HB 88. “Tell me where we’re going with this,” Sen. Wesley Bishop (D-New Orleans) asked Mack. “Whether it’s the intention or not, this will have a disproportionate effect on the elderly, poor, and disabled folks.” “This is the Attorney General’s bill. It is targeted to those who do not qualify for the benefits, and who intentionally put things on the application they knew to be false, in order to receive the benefits,” Mack responded. “The purpose is to prosecute people. We are currently prohibited from doing straight up recipient fraud,” explained Ellison Travis, an attorney with the AG’s Medicaid Fraud Unit. “It’s targeted at people who are pretending to be poor.” “Why would somebody pretend to be poor?” Bishop asked, clearly appalled by the assertion. “In order to obtain the benefits,” Travis replied, matter-of-factly. “We get tips. People call in and say because of their relationship with someone, they know their income, and they know they’re on Medicaid.” “So you get an anonymous call, saying that so-and-so is trying to defraud the government. And based on that tip, you want to bring criminal charges against an already economically-disadvantaged individual?” Bishop asked. “How do they come up with enough money to ward off the government?” “I fundamentally disagree with the assertion that those are the people being targeted,” Travis insisted. “This is targeting people who do have money – more money than would make them eligible for Medicaid. It’s not the poor people.” Bishop then turned back to Mack, asking, “Were any of these concerns expressed to you prior to filing the bill?” “None of them were expressed to me before filing the bill, and to be honest, none were expressed to me either on the House floor or in my committee,” said Mack, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Committee. And again he reiterated, “It is the Attorney General’s bill.” “In the seven years that you have served on the House Criminal justice Committee, has the Attorney General ever brought you a bill to take the same action against corporations, as opposed to individuals?” Bishop asked. “He has not,” Mack admitted. “How many people do you anticipate prosecuting next year, based on your knowledge right now?” Senate Finance chairman Eric LaFleur asked. “As it is right now, we are prohibited from doing this,” Travis stated. “Our Medicaid Fraud Unit cannot accept these cases, because our federal grant prohibits us from investigating straight-up recipient fraud. We can only investigate recipient fraud when they are colluding with a provider.” That’s not just a part of the grant that funds the AG’s Medicaid fraud unit: it’s basic federal law, which states: “The investigation and prosecution of cases of suspected recipient fraud not involving suspected conspiracy with a provider is prohibited.” And just as the Bayou Brief’s Lamar White has previously reported, the Attorney General’s office is not reluctant to play fast and loose with grant requirements. Despite being prohibited from going after recipients for fraud– something Jeff Landry has described as “being handcuffed by the federal Department of Health and Human Services” — the Attorney General has been running ads online and on radio, urging people to report Medicaid recipient fraud. Presumably, they are being paid for out of his Medicaid Fraud Unit’s budget, which is funded by the federal grant that specifically prohibits such activity. Still, Sen. LaFleur was somewhat taken aback by the testimony from the AG’s office. “You don’t go after this kind of fraud?” LaFleur asked. “Current law requires us to refer cases like this to the local district attorney,”Travis explained. “He can prosecute the individuals for theft. But when someone applies for Medicaid, they get put into one of the managed care organizations, and the state is paying basically about $4800 per year for their healthcare coverage. They’re not getting cash. They’re not getting money. And unless they access more services, it may be difficult to convince a judge that that individual has taken something of value, and that it amounts to theft. “Still, they have this coverage. It’s there, but they may never use it. The application, however, is fraudulent, and this would allow us to prosecute,” Travis insisted. “I’m concerned that this is a very broad-based bill that captures everybody that commits fraud. It is not income-based, or solely Medicaid,” LaFleur said. “The last paragraph of the bill says ‘any record, voucher, payment, money or thing of value, good, service, right or privilege provided or administered by a state government entity’. That’s a very wide net to cast.” Sen. Greg Tarver (D-Shreveport) had concerns, as well. “Are you planning on putting grandma in prison?” he asked. “You know, somebody 80 years old, the total amount is $600 in fraud? Won’t it cost more to prosecute than what they owe? And is it realistic to send them to prison for five years?” “We’re not just talking about getting money back,” Travis replied. “We’re talking about deterrence. The cost of prosecuting doesn’t outweigh the benefit of deterring this type of behavior.” “I agree that we don’t want to lock Grandma up,” said Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), “but we need more tools in the toolbox to get a handle on Medicaid, especially with our budget issues.” Ultimately, the committee voted to return the bill to “the stack”, where they have placed all other bills carrying fiscal notes that indicate increased costs to the state. It isn’t dead. In fact, it could come back up for a vote as soon as next week.
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Sue Lincoln
Sue Lincoln is a veteran and widely-respected reporter who has been covering Louisiana politics for nearly three decades. Originally from Long Beach, California, Sue’s career in journalism began on the radio in Los Angeles. After moving to Louisiana, Sue earned her bachelor’s degree. For ten years, from 2000-2010, she was the Assistant News Director at Louisiana Network. Sue also worked as the education reporter for Louisiana Public Broadcasting and has contributed to various state publications as a freelance journalist. But she is perhaps best known as the voice of the popular politics Capitol Access.