State targeting fraud in nutrition program

Georgia health officials have launched a campaign to stop persistent fraud in a $300 million federal nutrition program for low-income women and children.

The anti-fraud initiative in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has led to a handful of recent arrests, state officials say.

“The arrests are part of a larger investigation to identify and shut down WIC fraud not only on a individual scale, but also on what is believed to be a significantly larger, more organized level,’’ said Ryan Deal, spokesman for the state Department of Community Health, which administers WIC in Georgia.

“WIC fraud is certainly not confined to the state of Georgia, but we’re sending a clear message to taxpayers and would-be criminals: Fraud will not be tolerated,” he said.

WIC serves roughly 9 million Americans, about 312,000 of whom are Georgians. The program is funded by the federal government but administered locally by the states. Pregnant mothers, postnatal women, and children up to age 5 can enroll.

WIC participants receive vouchers for milk, fruits, vegetables and other nutritional foods. The vouchers can be redeemed in stores that are approved WIC vendors.

Applicants are screened for identity, income, residency and nutritional risk. In accordance with federal guidance, Georgia, like other states, does not consider citizenship status when determining program eligibility.

Enrollment in the program is decreasing both in Georgia and nationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, cites declining national birthrates for the drop.

A central goal of the program is to boost the health of low-income children with nutritional needs.

The WIC program ‘’leads to better school readiness — children doing well in school,’’ said Pam Gaston, executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia, a nonprofit that runs a call center for people seeking health care services.

Added Joann Yoon of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy group: “The WIC program is vitally important. . . . With families losing employment, there’s an increased need for food.’’

Several problems with WIC in Georgia were cited in a U.S. Department of Agriculture audit in fiscal 2008. The audit said the state failed to identify ‘’high-risk’’ vendors for investigations, did not account for all food vouchers and did not prevent individuals from having “dual’’ enrollments.

And a 2010 state audit found that Georgia was still not accounting for all vouchers in a timely manner.

“We’re doing what we can to tighten up WIC,’’ said David Cook, commissioner of Community Health. ‘’We feel strongly that we need to be good stewards of all the funds we get, state and federal.’’

The steps the agency has taken or plans to implement include:

  • Revising the stamp for WIC stores so it can’t be duplicated
  • Paying only those vouchers that are authenticated
  • Putting a moratorium on bringing new vendors or stores into the program
  • Increasing the square footage required of WIC vendors, to reduce the number of fly-by-night, fraudulent operators
  • Changing the kind of paper used for vouchers to make them harder to counterfeit
  • Unifying the IT system for public health to help reduce document fraud

The dollar amount of fraud by problem vendors is much greater than that by individual participants, Community Health says.

The agency is getting local law enforcement involved, said Brian Castrucci, director of the Maternal and Child Health Program at the state’s Division of Public Health. “We’re saving taxpayers’ money by not paying bad vouchers.’’

The state is flagging ‘’strange dollar amounts’’ in bank data of WIC vendors, Castrucci added.

The message, he said, is that “WIC fraud is not going to be easy in Georgia. If you’re doing bad things, we’re going to find you.’’