The Mississippi Department of Health Services (MDHS) has agreed to pay the United States $5 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act in its administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Department of Justice announced today. Until 2008, SNAP was known as the Food Stamp Program.
“SNAP is an important vehicle for helping families in need,” said Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “This settlement is another example of the Department’s commitment to protecting taxpayer funds and the vital programs that they support.”
“Although it is appalling that these actions occurred within a state agency entrusted with assisting vulnerable and needy residents, I am heartened that MDHS has resolved its liability and cooperated with our investigation,” said U.S. Attorney William D. Hyslop for the Eastern District of Washington. “Together with our partners in the Justice Department’s Civil Division and the USDA, we will continue to investigate and hold accountable those who misuse and wrongfully obtain SNAP funding.”
“We appreciate the commitment and investigative assistance provided by our partners at the Department of Justice’s Civil Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout this multi-state investigation,” said Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins of the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG). “We also wish to note the technical assistance provided by our colleagues in the Office of Audit at OIG. During the investigation, conducted by OIG’s Northeast Regional Office, we worked together to address the concerns of employees of multiple states and others who alleged that the integrity of the SNAP quality control process was weakened by third-party consultants. These concerned individuals reported that cases were not being treated in a consistent manner, and that certain advice from consultants resulted in identified errors being diminished rather than used to improve eligibility determinations. The settlements reached to date send a strong message regarding the government’s commitment to work across agency lines to protect the integrity of SNAP.”
Under SNAP, USDA provides eligible low-income individuals and families with financial assistance to buy nutritious food. Since 2010, SNAP has served on average more than 45 million Americans per month, and provided more than $71 billion annually.
Although the federal government funds SNAP benefits, it relies on the states to determine whether applicants are eligible for benefits, to administer those benefits, and to perform quality control to ensure that eligibility decisions are accurate. The USDA requires that the states’ quality control processes ensure that benefits are correctly awarded, are free from bias, and accurately report states’ error rates in making eligibility decisions.
The USDA reimburses states for a portion of their administrative expenses in administering SNAP, including expenses for providing quality control. It also pays performance bonuses to states that report the lowest and the most improved error rates each year, and can impose monetary sanctions on states with high error rates that do not show improvement.
The settlement resolves allegations that beginning in 2012, MDHS contracted with a consultant known as Julie Osnes Consulting, LLC (Osnes Consulting) to provide advice and recommendations designed to lower its SNAP quality control error rate. The United States alleged that Osnes Consulting’s recommendations, as implemented by MDHS, injected bias into MDHS’s quality control process and resulted in MDHS submitting false quality control data and information to USDA, for which it received undeserved performance bonuses for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
This is the seventh settlement in this matter, and the sixth settlement with a state agency for manipulating its SNAP quality control findings. The United States has reached previous settlements with state agencies in Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Louisiana, and Alaska, as well as with Osnes Consulting and its owner, Julie Osnes. Including this settlement, the United States has now recovered over $41 million in connection with this investigation.
The settlement was the result of a joint investigation conducted by the USDA-OIG, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington, and the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, Commercial Litigation Branch. The investigation arose out of a nationwide audit of SNAP Quality Control processes by the USDA-OIG. The claims resolved by the civil settlement are allegations only and there has been no determination of liability.