Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pennsylvania audit may show state Department of Public Welfare bought chandeliers, home bowling alley with money intended for people with intellectual disabilities

From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

HARRISBURG - Lawmakers are awaiting release of an audit that they hope will explain how the state Department of Public Welfare approved payments for chandeliers, a home bowling alley, and other seemingly extravagant items with funds meant to provide health care and employment support for Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities.

Those expenditures - as well as state payments on home mortgages, luxury cars, and flea-dipping for a therapeutic cat - came to light during a Senate Health and Welfare Committee hearing this week.

"The need for reform is urgent," Tim Costa, the department's executive deputy secretary, told the committee. He said officials were making changes and expected to unveil new regulations this year.

The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Pat Vance (R., Cumberland), invited Costa to address the panel because she heard rumors about some of the expenditures. She said later that Costa confirmed her fear that money was being wasted.

In some cases, the state made mortgage payments on houses owned by the program's service providers, who, after the mortgage was paid off, then charged the state up to $12,000 a year for use of the property, Costa said. Elsewhere, owners of those homes then sold them for profit to other providers, who charged the state again for mortgage payments on the same property, he said.

Costa did not say how many homes were involved, reveal how much was spent on mortgage payments, or offer many details about the other Intellectual Disability Waiver Program expenditures under scrutiny.

A spokeswoman said the department was expected to soon release 11 audits of various programs under the Office of Developmental Programs. She said she could not discuss the audits or their contents until their release.

Vance said she and other committee members were eager to see them.

"I am surprised and appalled that taxpayer dollars were used to pay for these things," she said.

"Did anybody actually break the law? Probably not, but there was a huge loophole and they drove right through it. Think of how many more people we could provide for if we could get rid of this waste and abuse."

During the hearing, she grilled Costa about the department's approval of a payment for building a bowling alley.

"How did this get through your system? How did no one pick this up?" she asked. "You have to help me understand how that could happen."

Costa told her it was billed as a "therapeutic support service," although it was not used by a disabled client but by the child's parents, who needed "an outlet."

"Why was it approved? I guess because there were not tight fiscal regulations," he said. "That suggests there were not fiscal regulations in place, period. That's one example, and it's pretty egregious, especially when you know there are people who need services and are not getting them. I assure you we will not be approving bowling alleys going forward."

Almost 16,000 people are on a waiting list for the program's services.

Vance said the problems occurred before the Corbett administration took office and that her committee intended to hold more hearings. "We need to put regulations in place immediately to make sure these things don't happen," she said.

The Intellectual Disabilities Waiver Program is meant to help people with mental retardation live independently. Eligible expenditures include home accessibility adaptations, nursing care, homemaker help, specialized supplies, employment support, and transportation.