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Editorial: Welfare politics

State Auditor Suzanne Bump and her department made a news splash last week by reporting welfare payments of $2.4 million to deceased and other ineligible people in the state — in addition to $28 million in suspicious outlays.

Stacy Monahan, the acting commissioner for the Department of Transitional Assistance, fired right back, disputing the accuracy of the audit’s figures and asking for more detailed information.

Apparently, Bump’s office has only provided the agency with 178 cases where individuals were said to have been dead but assistance continued out of the more than 1,100 claims of fraud. In defending the welfare department, the Patrick administration claims 54 of those had already been closed, 79 people were not dead at all and 13 were duplicates.

Lawmakers from both parties immediately waded into this one, since “welfare fraud” is one of those topics that prompts kneejerk reactions from both sides of the aisle.

The political posturing, however, interferes with informing Massachusetts taxpayers — the ones who are paying the bill — with information on just how pervasive a problem it is or what is being done to fix the system.

The good news here is that the attorney general’s office is now involved so that both the auditor’s office and the welfare agency will have to turn over the necessary information to a third party.

Obviously, any kind of fraud is never a good thing. But using such problems to make sweeping generalizations only denigrates those who need such assistance. And any kind of reform is going to require state departments to work together.

An essential step here is sharing information, even when it is data that doesn’t put one department in a particularly good light. Such communication shouldn’t come after a public release of a report, either. If an issue is raised by one department about an individual, other departments should be aware of the concern. That’s why a central database is so important. But that database will only work if the information it contains is accurate and up to date.

That’s the big picture approach for all of state government.

In this case, one step would be changing the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to include photo identification. This would reduce the amount of times EBT cards are used by someone other than who it was intended for and it make it harder to sell the cards or counterfeit them.

That’s just one common-sense approach to reducing the opportunity to cheat the system.

As to relations between state departments? It’s time to cooperate.

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