Sen. Josh Harkins (R-Flowood) authored the bill. It would allow the State Auditor’s Office to review income tax returns in order to determine eligibility for public assistance programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. At the request of Shad White, the state auditor, the Senate Finance Committee approved the bill. Six people were arrested on fraud and embezzlement charges. Original filing of the bill was January. “This bill is not about compliance. This is about terror. “We’re going use this law, and we’re going terrorize a lot of people,” Sen. John Horhn (D-Jackson), stated during Thursday’s committee meeting. The history of Medicaid compliance shows us that it is not the recipients. It’s not recipients; it’s the providers. In recent cases, it’s the employees of Mississippi.” In a case of the biggest public embezzlement in state history, Nancy New and John Davis, former Human Services director, were arrested earlier in the week by agents from the auditor’s bureau. The federal TANF program was allegedly stolen by the suspects, which reportedly totalled more than $4.15million. State lawmakers have always been concerned with the recipients when it comes to accountability for public assistance programs. This has led to the imposition of drug testing and work requirements in recent years. It also included the purchase of a new computer system that allows for verification and tracking applicant information. White was appointed by the former governor. Phil Bryant appointed White in 2018, and he was elected in 2019. He told Mississippi Today that White promises to take a consistent approach to eradicating fraud, “no matter what the source” Friday. White requested that the legislation be passed to meet a federal requirement that his office determine the eligibility of ablebodied Medicaid recipients, a small part of the program’s annual audit. White stated that he and other state auditors had determined they need “access to state income taxes returns to ensure people are telling the truth when it comes to Medicaid how much they earn.” The audit would be limited to about 60,700 adult caretakers who account for less than ten per cent of a Medicaid program that primarily serves children. White stated that his office would review a selection of these cases to see if the program is serving anyone who does not meet eligibility. Harkins stated to Mississippi Today that only a small group of auditors would be able to pull the returns within a short time frame. “If there is one area of our budget that seems like it expands every year and eats away all of our pockets, it’s our Medicaid budget,” Senator Chris McDaniel (R-Ellisville) stated during the meeting. He added that the state must ensure that those receiving the Medicaid funds are people who have earned it and deserve it. White’s office found that improper payments of approximately $615,000 were made to Medicaid managed care companies in 2018. This is a small percentage of the millions spent on the program. Matt Westerfield, a spokesperson for Medicaid, stated that the agency would welcome support from the state auditor in verifying that Medicaid recipients meet all eligibility criteria. This will help ensure that resources are available for those who qualify. The Shreveport Times reported that neighboring Louisiana senators rejected a similar proposal. White wants to be able to review income tax returns of recipients of other programs, such as TANF (the federal program that was at the heart of the massive fraud scheme he discovered), in the event that the federal government needs this type of audit. His office published an annual audit in July that highlighted major problems with federal public assistance department monitoring. It also failed to keep a complete list of subgrantees. Stephanie Palmertree (financial and compliance auditor director at the state auditor’s offices) stated that it was impossible to monitor people you don’t know have given money to them. White stated that the state has all the laws necessary to stop government officials from defrauding federal program funds. White stated that Senate leaders are interested in conducting a forensic audit on TANF spending. This would essentially track the flow of each program dollar to subgrantees. White thinks he will need to hire a private company to do the work as it would be time-consuming. White stated that this might be the only way for him to find out how the money was spent, and the problems associated with it. It will cost a lot if we need to do it quickly, but it is likely to be worth it. In 2018, the State established the Office of the inspector General to detect fraud in the human services department. The office has identified 27 intentional TANF violations amounting to $14,224 in the past year. This is approximately one-hundredth percent of the program. While the auditor has not yet released the dollar amount of the embezzlement scheme, he stated that his office had identified at least $4.15million stolen. It could have paid more than 24,000 monthly payments to families of 3 — up to $170 per month for a family with three — which would have helped over 2,000 families. A family must have a child in their home to be eligible for TANF cash assistance. An adult must also meet the work requirements and earn less than $680 per month for a family with three children. Other services provided by TANF include the Mississippi Community Education Center (which ran Families First for Mississippi), which does not require a person prove their eligibility. Kayleigh Skinner contributed this report.