Maine has begun using a national new-hire database to find Mainers collecting unemployment, a tactic that found 350 cases of potential fraud on its first use.
"We have been using the state new-hire data base for years," said Laura Boyett, director of the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation. "This is the first time we have been able to query the national new-hire data base."
She said federal funds paid for the necessary changes to the state computer system to allow it to pull data from the national database and match it with the state list of people receiving unemployment benefits. Each case will be reviewed because some people may be properly getting benefits because they were hired, but have not actually started work, or are working part time and eligible for some benefits.
"[In the fraud cases] we will seek return of improperly paid funds," Boyett said and cases may be turned over the attorney general for prosecution. In addition to civil penalties and interest, there are criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and up to a $2,000 fine for unemployment fraud.
A measure before lawmakers now would increase penalties to as much as 10 years in prison and a fine up to $20,000 and increase the time a person is disqualified from receiving benefits.
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the co-chair of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee is the sponsor of the measure. He praised the Labor Department's use of the national new-hire database to find fraud and errors in the system.
"Our goal is to make sure that everyone who is entitled to benefits is receiving benefits and anyone who is not entitled to benefits is not," he said. "Plain and simple."
Rector said he wants to "root out" fraud because it drives up the cost of unemployment taxes for employers who pay for the entire cost of the system.
Boyett said the national new-hire database will now be checked weekly for potential fraud, just like the state new-hire database. She said the program will be one among other efforts to reduce unemployment fraud.
A computer programming problem at the Department of Health and Human Services has allowed at least 19,000 Mainers who were not eligible for MaineCare to receive benefits, throwing budget assumptions into doubt and possibly delaying the session.
DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said the department is conducting an "analysis to find what the financial implications are."
She said staff at DHHS were aware of a problem since 2010, but it was not brought to her attention or other agency leaders until January. Basically, she said, the bill-paying computer system could not communicate with the eligibility system, so individuals were not being removed from the billing system after they were determined to be ineligible for benefits.
"We need to do a system level comprehensive analysis of what else we should be looking at within this system that is affecting our data, the integrity of our data and our ability to make informed decisions about this program," Mayhew said.
She said there is no estimate yet of what this problem means to the Legislature's appropriations committee, which is working on a Medicaid budget bill for the second year of a two-year budget. Lawmakers last month approved an emergency budget bill to pay the bills for this year.
Mayhew said it is likely there are some additional costs in the current budget year, but removal of all of ineligible people should reduce the expected costs of the program in the second year. She said it will take four weeks to do the analysis and provide dollar amounts to lawmakers.
Members of the appropriations committee were surprised and upset at the news. Legislative leaders were hoping to end this session the first week in April.
"It's obviously enormously frustrating to have this computer problem still haunting us," said Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry. "The whole thing with the computer system is just a nightmare from which we are yet to awaken."
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the Democratic lead on the committee, said the snafu will have an impact on the timing of the session. Work on a state budget cannot be completed without accurate numbers.
"The magnitude of that incompetence is astounding to me,"she said. "One of the things that is particularly disturbing to me is that someone in DHHS knew in January that there was a problem. This is at the same time we were meeting with the commissioner and her staff trying to figure out why we had a shortfall."
Rotundo lamented lawmakers were not told of the glitch when trying to verify Medicaid numbers that "just didn't add up."
"As commissioner I own responsibility for this problem," Mayhew said. "This issue should have been identified and brought to my attention."
Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee are determined to find additional funding for the state police computer crime unit after hearing the backlog of cases continues to grow, most dealing with child pornography.
"This is my absolute top priority," said Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Livermore Falls. "I will never forget what I saw at the crime lab, never."
Like several other members of the panel, Mason visited the lab and looked at images on computers being analyzed. He said he is haunted by those images.
"Let's really do something about it and stop kicking the can down the road," said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick.
A former co-chairman of the panel, he said he has been frustrated as the efforts of the computer crime lab have depended on federal grants, including federal recovery act funding that runs out next year. He said the unit has had to put investigation of other crimes on hold to deal with sex crime.
State Police Lt. Glenn Lang, the director of the unit, told the panel that the unit could barely hold its own when it was fully staffed and now the backlog has grown. As of February, there were more than 200 cases with over 600 computer hard drives that need to be investigated.
"When we were at full complement, had the six detectives working for us and the four forensic examiners, we could just about stay dead even with the flow," he said.
Lang said there can be as a many as 10 hard drives seized in a single case.
"And there is more information capacity on the hard drives we are seeing now," he said. "It takes longer to do the analysis."
Lang says the unit handled 235 child pornography cases in 2011, representing 73% of the unit's workload. He said cases involving business crimes are often bumped to investigate sex crimes.