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Column: Legislature must stop, prevent child care fraud

By Barb Haley, Minnesota District 21A representative

Earlier this month, the Legislative Auditor — a nonpartisan office tasked with auditing state agencies to strengthen accountability and ensure best management in government — released a report on fraud in Minnesota's Childcare Assistance Program.

The report indicates substantial and widespread fraud of the taxpayer dollars flowing into our state's child care assistance program, which provides aid to help low-income families afford child care. We know that instead of going to help low-income Minnesotans pay for child care, millions of taxpayer dollars have been given to fraudulent day care providers who take advantage of the lack of accountability at the Department of Human Services — the state agency administering these funds.

The report also indicates that DHS lacks the proper internal controls to detect and prevent the fraud, which also makes prosecutions difficult. It's incredibly frustrating that a state agency allows this to happen. Fraud and waste in our public programs, especially of this size, are an unacceptable breach of public trust and taxpayers are rightfully outraged.

The contents of this report make it clear that lawmakers must take action to crack down on the fraud, implement tougher penalties, and prevent it in the future. On Monday, I joined my House Republican colleagues in introducing a comprehensive legislative package aimed at combating this abuse of child care funds. In addition, fraud in other state programs, such as Medical Assistance, is well documented and thus our proposal takes aim at this as well. I'm proud to champion these reforms, which the Star Tribune hailed as "a sweeping crackdown on illegal overbilling."

Our legislation would strengthen penalties for fraudsters and make sure policies are implemented at DHS to stop this from happening in the first place. It's crucial that DHS better regulate who is able to access child care assistance. The agency must prevent overbilling and false reporting by fraudulent daycare providers who blatantly steal money from taxpayer-supported public programs.

Our legislation would also make additional tools available to aid investigators and provide prosecutors with what they need to bring fraudsters to justice. Furthermore, it would reform child care assistance eligibility to keep fraudsters from illegally accessing the fund as well as provide better, more independent oversight of DHS. I believe this proposal represents a strong first step in getting our arms around this rampant problem.

While House Republicans are ready to tackle this fraud head on, I don't believe the House Democrat majority is taking this issue seriously. It's disappointing that, three months into our legislative session, they've held hearings on so few bills and still have not held a hearing on the contents of the Legislative Auditor's telling report.

In addition, Gov. Tim Walz's budget proposals call for increased funding for the child care assistance program. Putting more money into a clearly mismanaged program that is rife with abuse — without prioritizing real reforms to address the fraud — is the wrong approach. It doesn't make sense to me, and I know it doesn't make sense to taxpayers who foot the bill for this irresponsible spending. Instead of raising taxes by billions of dollars and asking Minnesotans to pay more into a fraudulent system, Democrats and the governor should adjust their focus and prioritize rooting out fraud, waste, and abuse in ALL public programs.

I believe if agencies like DHS become more accountable and efficient, eliminate ineffective programs, and address waste and fraud, our state will be better positioned to provide assistance and take care of those who truly need it. You can count on me to continue pushing to restore the integrity of our child care assistance program. We have a great opportunity in the coming months to stop this fraud and make a real difference in making sure our state government is accountable to the people it serves. I hope the governor and my legislative colleagues will join me in these efforts.