Restoring integrity to the Child Care Assistance Program has been top of mind for many lawmakers over the past few years.
The program provides subsidies to low-income families for early childhood opportunities while parents are working or in school. More recently, however, the program has been criticized for being prone to fraud, waste and abuse. This was amplified following a 2019 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor that indicated it lacked oversight and that fraud was more pervasive than what prosecutors could prove.
Seeking to remedy this, the Legislature passed several anti-fraud measures last year. To learn about the impacts of that legislation, the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division dedicated its meeting Thursday to an informational hearing on the topic.
“Last session we can be really proud that we made a number of changes to the oversight of the Child Care Assistance Program,” said Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), division chair.
Deputy Human Services Commissioner Chuck Johnson gave a full rundown of the progress the department has made.
“Over the last year we have been working to strengthen the oversight and integrity of the program,” he said. “I hope after hearing this you’ll realize that we’re on a good path to strengthen the Child Care Assistance Program going forward … to make it an effective program for children and families.”
Continuous improvement process and legislative changes
The department has taken a two-step approach to addressing the issue. Even before the legislative changes last year, it was evaluating the program and its processes.
“It started out in an improvement manner and then we thought with the new legislation that was coming our way, this would be a great opportunity to design something fresh,” explained Jeff Swanson, director of management services at the department.
He outlined how the old process lacked standards, protocols and decision making as a result of years of policy adoption, legislation, and internal work rules building up.
“It was inundated with bureaucratic protocols that wasn’t adding to the final resolution,” Swanson said.
Between the process improvement and legislative changes the department:
Prior to the change, investigators were averaging 1.5 cases each. Under the new process, they’re able to handle 8.8 cases at a time, a 450 percent increase. The department is currently working 63 investigations, and has rooted out $600,000 in overpayment. It has also prosecuted a number of providers for infractions.
Even with these changes, Johnson said there is more to do, including process tweaks, using better attendance record technology and additional legislative changes will be requested.
Division members expressed appreciation for the work that has been done so far, but questions about its effectiveness remain.
Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) asked what types of checks and balances are in place to ensure this new process is an improvement over the old one, and who is accountable in the event that pervasive fraud continues.
“We have a new process and, I mean, we’d all like to believe that this new process is going to be that much better than the old process … but really what assurances are there?” he said.
Each step in the new process includes a control plan, explained Swanson. These control plans include weekly data runs, tracking all the decisions that are made, and the rationale behind them, and regularly evaluating if the process to ensure it’s having the intended results.