MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may be taking a page out of President Donald Trump's playbook.
In a new campaign ad, the Republican candidate -- who is seeking a third non-consecutive term as governor -- claims the state wastes millions on welfare, like free health benefits for undocumented immigrants.
The ad's astonishing claim: Free medical benefits are going to thousands of people who do not deserve them.
Here is a transcript of the 30-second ad:
An important audit revealed Minnesota's wasting hundreds of millions giving free health care to people who aren't even eligible. The state's not making sure those who apply for welfare, are even supposed to get it. I'm Tim Pawlenty. As governor, I'll stop this. I'll make sure people who get government benefits actually qualify for them, and that they're here legally. And the money we save? I'll use it to lower your health insurance costs.
We checked out the first line of the ad: "An important audit revealed Minnesota's wasting hundreds of millions giving free health care to people who aren't even eligible."
It is true. This claim is based on a 2016 study by the non-partisan Office of Minnesota Legislative Auditor, with a dry sounding title: "Department of Human Services Oversight of MNsure Eligibility Determinations for Public Health Care Programs."
And yes, that is exactly what it says. According to the report:
The Department of Human Services did not ensure that people enrolled in
Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare met the federal and state eligibility requirements for the program in which they were enrolled. As a result, the department-paid benefits for ineligible people enrolled in public health care programs.
The audit reviewed hundreds of thousands of Medicaid and MinnesotaCare files, and scientifically sampled 157 cases, matching employment records and tax returns.
It found about 30-percent of participants may have been ineligible.
The audit estimates up to 132,140 people did not qualify for the program in which they were enrolled, and 107,870 more were not eligible for any program.
The overpayment? $271 million.
But even though the study on which the ad is based is real, it ia an exaggeration to suggest undocumented immigrants are responsible.
The ad highlights black-and-white photos of an immigration protest, and what appears to be defiant people climbing over a border wall.
But the audit does not say immigrants are responsible. It cites immigration status for only a fraction of people. Of the 157 cases the audit studied, the state could not verify citizenship or immigration status for 14.
Pawlenty makes a promise in the ad that few could disagree with: "I'll make sure people who get government benefits actually qualify for them. And that they're here legally."
But it is not what the audit reports, and it is not the whole story. The audit blames lax oversight, poor training and outdated software -- not undocumented immigrants.
The Department of Human Services questions the accuracy of the audit itself, questioning the methodology and what it says are outdated statistics.
In a written statement, DHS Commissioner Emily Piper said the department has made "significant improvements," and was still recovering from a failed computer tracking system called "HealthMatch," that was implemented under the Pawlenty administration between 2003 and 2011.
Here is Commissioner Piper's written statement in full:
Minnesota's public health care programs are intended to serve only those who are eligible. The state upholds that principle by following federal eligibility requirements, including covering people with lawful immigration status.
Prior to Governor Dayton's tenure, the legislative auditor issued many audits finding misspending in public health care programs. Additionally, in 2007, the OLA focused extensively on an IT development project called HealthMatch which cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and produced no deliverable improvements to DHS and the counties' antiquated shared IT system. At the same time, public programs were facing extensive cuts for those who needed them most while health insurers were given year-over-year significant rate increases without any requirements to publicly compete for billions of dollars of Medicaid funding.
We disputed the 2016 OLA audit methodology at the time and pointed out system improvements we already had made. That said, we acknowledge that DHS and counties across Minnesota have had challenges implementing a subsequent IT system following the failure of HealthMatch. Since then, we have made significant gains in developing an IT solution that supports determining eligibility for public programs, and we have more work to do.
James Nobles, the legislative auditor, said his office stands behind the report.
"There has been a long standing problem at the Department of Human Services to consistently and accurately determine eligibility for these Medical Assistance programs," Nobles said.
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