L.A. County Fingerprint System Points Out Welfare Fraud

Los Angeles County expects to save more than $85 million from an eight-year program to track welfare recipients and reduce the ability for some to "double dip" for more benefits than they deserve from the county-and soon from anywhere in the state.

L.A. County was the first and now has the biggest system in place to ensure that public welfare funds are distributed according to federal, state and local laws. Before the automated system was launched, starting in 1991, there was no feasible way to stop people from filing for benefits under more than one name or in more than one local welfare office. This form of double dipping is illegal, and it is part of the reason welfare fraud in total is estimated to cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year.

Now federal welfare reform legislation will limit welfare benefits to five years. And so the role of state and local governments in keeping track of the funds and ensuring that only qualified recipients receive money will grow even more difficult. That's because the problem is much bigger than any single state can handle. Currently there is no way to stop a recipient from accepting benefits from one state or local government and then, after four years, jumping to another state to start the clock running once more.

With no national welfare fraud reduction system in the works, that task will rest with states and localities-each of which manages welfare funds differently and can implement any type of system that meets local needs. "It's clear that welfare reform mandates every state and local government to have some sort of biometric identification system," said Steve Yeich, vice president of sales and marketing for Printrak International Inc., Anaheim, Calif.

So far state and local governments setting up identification systems are all choosing fingerprint systems over retinal scanning or other biometric technology. Each of those systems must adhere to American National Standards Institute standards for the exchange of fingerprint data. But until now only a handful of state and local governments--including New York, Texas, Illinois and the rest of California--have formally considered or are implementing systems.

To create a secure nationwide welfare fraud deterrent, each state will also need to have legal agreements to cross-search each other's databases. That's several years away at best-if every locality invests in such a system in the meantime, that is.

Dawn Wilder, account manager for Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s State and Local Government Division, headquartered in Herndon, Va., and the prime contractor for L.A. County, says half of the states in the United States have approached the company for information on welfare fraud reduction systems. "But few have taken further steps to implement such systems," she said. For now, L.A. County, while the oldest, remains the best example of a regional government's ability to curb welfare fraud-with a little technological help.

Perspective

According to Bill MacFadden, chief of computer services for L.A. County, the county has been involved in efforts to reduce welfare fraud since the early 1980s, when it started manually fingerprinting welfare applicants and requiring clerical employees to sift through files of fingerprints and photographs to search for matches. By the mid-1980s, the county had 50,000 fingerprint/photo cards on file, but only 10 percent of the applicants were being processed that way.

Finally, after a bidding process that included North American MORPHO Systems and NEC Information Systems Inc., L.A. selected EDS in 1990 for a five-year contract that has since been extended through the end of 1998.

The current system is used by the county's General Relief (GR), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and food stamp programs in L.A. The success of the L.A. system prompted seven other California counties to follow suit, and the state government is expected to select a supplier for a statewide system by July.

L.A.'s Identification Solution

EDS teamed with Printrak to provide the Automated Fingerprint Image Reporting and Match (AFIRM) system for L.A. County. The system runs on Hewlett-Packard Co. Unix workstations connected to a centralized HP host server. The server houses an Informix relational database that stores information on the welfare applicant and is linked to an optical data storage subsystem that holds the fingerprint image data.

Here's how it works: There are 52 remote HP 715 workstations installed throughout the county at local welfare offices. Each workstation has 16M of RAM and 420M of local hard disk storage capacity. The central host server, an HP H40, houses the database in an El Monte, Calif., data center. Each of the remote workstations communicates with the server via 56 kilobit/sec telecommunications lines.

When an employee at the district welfare office processes a new application for benefits on the workstation, a fingerprint of the forefingers of each of the applicant's hands is taken using an Identix fingerprint scanner attached to the workstation. The identification information is then transmitted to the central site host system, where the prints go through Printrak's classification process, which occurs on four HP 730 workstations connected to the server via a local-area network.

After verifying a fingerprint pattern, the prints are sent to the central server database, which searches an HP Rewritable Optical Disk Library System for a match from one of the 600,000 sets of fingerprints on file. "We are required by contract to provide a response in five minutes or less," said Kathy Johnson, a systems manager for EDS.

After the fingerprint images have been searched/matched against the database, a "match" or "no match" response is returned to the district office workstation that sent the application. If a match is found, the applicant is informed. That applicant's information is also sent to L.A. County's Welfare Fraud Prevention&Investigation unit, where three more HP 715 workstations can compare matched prints. No arrest is made when a match is found. "Usually the applicant mysteriously disappears," MacFadden said.

In fact, the system has cut L.A. County's AFDC cases by 8,030. The district attorney's office has decided to prosecute 75 of the 115 fraud matches it has investigated so far. The primary goal of the system is to prevent fraud and reduce the cost to taxpayers, so each case in which a match is found is carefully investigated to determine whether prosecution is warranted, MacFadden explains.

The Cost/Benefit Equation

The system was put in place at a cost of $20.5 million for L.A.'s AFDC program, $17 million for GR and $4.9 million for the food stamp program. L.A. County officials expect to save more than $85 million on all the programs combined, through the eight-year contract's life cycle. Through September 1996, for example, 2,668 GR applications have been denied due to the detection of attempted duplicate case fraud or failure to comply with AFIRM.

In addition to lowering the county's welfare roster and providing cost reductions, L.A. County is pleased that manual searches that once took months to conduct are now done in minutes. Even reports that took several weeks to compile are now printed in hours. The reduction in paperwork and increased efficiency are two big benefits of the system, MacFadden says.

The next big challenge will be interconnecting L.A.'s system with the one chosen by the state government. Then, dealing with the problem of welfare fraud on a national scale will begin to take center stage. "But that will take some time," EDS' Wilder said.

Barbara DePompa is a free-lance writer based in Germantown, Md.

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