Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for November, 2013

State: UW Fire Techs Will Pay Thousands For Ethics Goofs

by Matt Rosenberg November 26th, 2013

Concluding a state oversight review that began with an auditor’s report last year, the Washington Executive Ethics Board has reached civil settlements with two University of Washington fire alarm control technician supervisors for allegations they spent hours surfing the Internet while on duty, including while collecting overtime pay. Each agreeing in signed “stipulation” settlement documents to $2,500 in fines and additional restitution were Don Makena and Stan Ross. In restitution Makena will also pay $5,150 and Ross another $1,323. Public records show actual total salary and overtime paid to Makena was $106,682 in 2011 and $94,919 in 2012; while Ross earned total pay of $89,930 in 2011 and $80,836 in 2012. Both belong to the labor union the Washington Federation of State Employees. They remain in their jobs but could be discharged if they make any other ethics missteps, said a university spokesman.

EPA to WA: Get Smarter on Puget Sound Transpo Policy

by Matt Rosenberg November 17th, 2013

For its Environmental Impact Statement on proposed all-lanes electronic tolling of part of I-90, Washington should consider not just a single alternative but a package of them carefully picked from the current menu which includes a regional vehicle mileage tax (VMT), more transit funding, and widening I-90; as well as a broader regional tolling plan, heavier tolling on 520 than now, and a state gas tax hike. So says the Environmental Review Manager of the U.S. EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10 office in a recent letter to the state. Meanwhile, the City of Mercer Island, at the center of growing opposition to I-90 tolls, is voicing support for a gas tax hike alternative favored by the State Senate Majority, while also signaling openness to a compromise involving HOT lanes, or partial tolling on the highway, free to multi-occupant vehicles and available to solo drivers for a toll. Like the EPA, the city is accenting the need to consider several alternatives implemented together.

Prescription Pot Could Be a Real Bummer, UW Doc Argues

by Matt Rosenberg November 5th, 2013

In a new editorial for the journal General Hospital Psychiatry, a University of Washington and Veterans Administration doctor argues the scientific literature shows that prescribing smoked marijuana for chronic pain isn’t smart because it can cause a range of harmful mental and physical effects or heighten risks. A Mayo Clinic doctor offers a counterpoint, arguing medical pot can make sense as part of a careful treatment program. Meanwhile, Washington is looking at tough new restrictions on medical weed, as legal recreational pot comes to market here.

Although medical and now recreational marijuana are legal in Washington that doesn’t mean it’s now smart for doctors to prescribe pot for pain relief, argues a University of Washington physician who heads the addiction psychiatry program there, and the Center of Excellence in Substance Abuse Treatment and Education for the U.S. Veteran’s Administration Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle. In the new editorial for General Hospital Psychiatry, titled “Marijuana Not Ready For Prime Time As An Analgesic,” Dr. Andrew J. Saxon argues that based on a review of the scientific literature, prescribing pot for chronic pain “is currently fraught with a number of concerns.”

CRS: U.S. Improper Payments At Least $688B Since ‘04

by Matt Rosenberg November 1st, 2013

Improper payments by U.S. government agencies were at least $115 billion in fiscal 2011 and $108 billion in 2012 but billions more may be misspent each year – under the radar of government watchdogs – according to a recent report from the non-partisan research arm of the U.S. Congress called the Congressional Research Service. The partial total has grown in dollar terms from $45 billion in 2004 to a cumulative $688 billion through last year. In percentage terms improper payments are now are at least 4.35 percent of U.S, government annual spending, equal to 2004 but down from a spike to 5.42 percent in 2009 and 5.29 percent in 2010.

From Improper Payments and Recovery Audits: Legislation, Implementation, and Analysis, Congressional Research Service, October, 2013

Definitions, Please
Improper payments are classified as those that shouldn’t have occurred or were for an inaccurate sum, including both over- and under-payments. They may have been made to recipients not eligible based on qualifications or lack of documentation; or for goods or services that were’t actually transmitted. They also include duplicate payments or ones that failed to factor in valid discounts.

Cashing Social Security Checks of Dead Relatives
One example of how improper payments occur is when the Social Security Administration is slow to verify the reported death of a beneficiary because the death notice comes from a “less accurate” source such as a post office, bank, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, or Medicare/Medicaid. As it takes time – often years and years – to verify the reported death, SSA may continue to send checks to the decedent’s address. These may then be cashed by other individuals such as family members or caregivers. Public records show the problem is fairly endemic.

A Nationwide Problem
Four different Western Washington defendants pled guilty to Social Security fraud in the first half of this year stemming from payments they received on behalf of dead people.

A host of other such cases, specifically involving alleged or admitted theft of social security benefits intended for the deceased are also archived at the investigations section of the Web site of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the Inspector General. Going back only to May 1 of this year are cases involving charges, guilty pleas or convictions in Ohio (sentenced); Mississippi (guilty plea); New Mexico (charged); Washington, D.C. (sentenced); California (sentenced); Oregon (sentenced); (charged); Illinois (sentenced); Illinois (guilty plea); New York (guilty plea); New York (sentencing); Oregon (guilty plea); New Hampshire (guilty plea); and California – Deputy Riverside County Prosecutor (charged).

HHS Central to the Improper Payments Problem
Improper payments tied to federal health care benefits figured in prominently to a detailed year-end 2012 report from the HHS Inspector General that the agency could save $23 billion per year if previously recommended reforms were implemented. And just today the HHS OIG reported on $29 million in improper Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit paid from 2009 through 201 to illegal residents, in violation of federal law.

So Too, Treasury’s Earned Income Tax Credit
Another prominent example: The Treasury Department’s Earned Income Tax Credit program has seen at least $100 billion in improper payments from federal fiscal years 2003-2011.

From paymentaccuracy.gov

The new CRS reports explains improper payments have mounted due partly to “…agencies’ failure to reduce substantially the error rates for risk-susceptible federal programs with multi-billion annual outlays. In some cases, error rates for these programs have actually increased over time. Moreover, the full extent of the improper payment problem is not known because agencies have yet to develop improper payment rates for some programs, including programs which (the U.S. Office of Management and Budget) estimates may have annual improper payments of $750 million annually.”

According to the Programs Not Reported section of the paymentaccuracy.gov transparency and reporting site now mandated by federal legislation, examples of non-reporting programs include HHS’s Children’s Health Insurance Program, the High Cost Program of the Universal Service Fund of the Federal Communications Commission, and Treasury’s Earned Income Tax Credit Program, which actually does report some improper payments but not nearly all that are thought to be likely. These three are developing plans to more accurately report their improper payments.

Public Data Ferret’s U.S. Government+Management archive

Other Culprits – Unemployment, Social Security, School Lunch Program
An interactive ascending/descending-rank table from paymentaccuracy.gov shows which agencies have the highest amounts of improper payments by dollar and as a percent of spending. On a percentage basis, the Earned Income Tax Credit had the highest rate of improper payments in 2012 at 22.7 percent, followed by the National School Lunch Program, Medicare Advantage Part C, Unemployment Insurance, and Social Security.

Key Fixes Seen
Recommended remedies include removing “statutory or regulatory barriers…to perform recovery audits,” and correcting poor information sharing between agencies on matters such as benefits eligibility, says the CRS report.


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