AUGUSTA — Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has amped up investigations of Maine’s welfare recipients, although the number of cases prosecuted remains essentially the same.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release Thursday that it referred 174 criminal cases for prosecution last year and uncovered more than $1.7 million in theft from welfare programs the state administers, including food stamps and cash benefits.

Meanwhile, the Attorney General’s Office told The Associated Press that it ordered more than $500,000 in restitution from recipients in 37 cases last year. The office prosecuted 36 such cases in 2015, up from eight in 2010.

The office said it also recovered about $23 million in provider fraud last year, up from $15 million in 2010.

“We are pleased that our efforts to reign in welfare fraud, waste and abuse continue to pay off,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in a prepared statement.

Mayhew said the state made progress in “turning back the wave of welfare dependency” and stamping out fraudulent use of benefits to direct resources toward the neediest. The LePage administration also increased the number of welfare fraud investigators from nine to 17 at a cost of about $700,000 a year.

The department also tracks cases where welfare recipients incorrectly report information to the state, and said Thursday that levying temporary and lifetime sanctions on such recipients will eventually save taxpayers about $3 million.

About 270,000 Mainers are enrolled in Medicaid and about 182,000 Mainers received food stamps benefits as of October, according to federal data. An average 8,500 Mainers last year received monthly welfare benefits, formerly called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Timothy Feeley, spokesman for Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills, said the office has one prosecutor responsible for fraud cases referred by the DHHS. A separate health care crimes unit handles billing fraud by Maine providers.

Feeley noted that the office isn’t involved in collecting restitution from recipients – which is left up to the courts – so he couldn’t say how much was actually collected.

filed under: