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Welfare agency may have more than rat problem

As a columnist, I often search for the right metaphor. Only rarely does one scurry across a desk leaving pellets in its path.

Today, I can say with certainty I smell a rat inside the state Division of Welfare and Supportive Services Professional Development Center at 701 N. Rancho Drive. Not only do employees in the building, once home to a Safeway, smell rats: They see them, hear them, and occasionally clean up after them.

For weeks I’ve heard complaints from workers about the pest problem.

Some told me the response to the roaming rodents was lame at best. A pest control outfit hired by the landlord set out a few traps.

That hasn’t stopped the noises in the walls and the sightings in the hallway, sometimes followed by shrieks from the workers.

While I realize Nevada is mired in a deep economic slump and the state’s budget is in crisis, there’s no excuse for allowing overwhelmed employees to toil in a rat-infested building. How long do you suppose such a problem would be allowed to exist at division headquarters in Carson City?

It’s not only unhealthy, but I suspect it’s also actionable.

A need to correct the problem is something welfare division staff specialist Miki Allard and I found in common in our conversation Thursday.

“We have a rodent problem,” Allard said. “We have contacted a landlord, and they are working with a pest control company to get that straightened out. They have been over there several times in the last week taking aggressive actions to get that taken care of.”

With the physical rat problem officially acknowledged, that leaves me with another question: Is the presence of rodents a metaphor for something dirty going on inside state welfare?

Given the substantial department budget cuts and enormous increase in workers’ caseloads, an increase in fraud and error would seem likely. Workers who once handled 300 cases are now asked to oversee up to 800.

In order to keep the system from completely bogging down, Allard says the department has been granted the go-ahead to shorten previously approved clients’ “redetermination” applications from 22 pages to a single page every six months.

In an attempt to reduce the stress and long lines, the department is pushing to make it possible to apply for benefits electronically. And workers have been approved to renew food stamp benefits by telephone.

“This is a very frustrating workload,” Allard said. “Our people generally have a very strong desire to provide very quality, timely services. Our staff is having significant stress issues and is struggling to provide services.”

I don’t doubt that. But for years welfare division employees have told me of their suspicion that programs are being gamed by insiders and clients with false identification who gather benefits under different names and in more than one jurisdiction.

Allard denies the department experiences many such problems, in large part due to the fact each client is issued a Quest card, which can be used like a credit card to obtain benefits but is traceable.

Although she acknowledged that several years ago four state employees were arrested and convicted of creating false claims, Allard added, “I don’t believe there’s a widespread problem with fraud. Is there someone who gets double benefits in two states? I’m sure there is someone. Do I believe it’s a significant percentage of our caseload? No.”

Officially, the error rate, defined as any incorrectly paid case due to worker error or client misreporting, is 3.92 percent. That’s a notch below the 4.28 percent national average.

Will dramatically increased caseloads and streamlined applications lead to more errors and greater fraud?

Let’s hope officials have better luck with that than they are having getting rid of those rats.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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