Waste not, want not

The Office of the Legislative Auditor found two years ago that Minnesota's expenditures for in-home, personal care services for disabled and elderly people were ballooning, and that the program was 'unacceptably vulnerable to fraud and abuse." Last week the Attorney General, Lori Swanson, filed criminal charges accusing a personal-care company of fraudulent billings of $975,295.

This is the taxpayers' money, paid for by the Medical Assistance program, which has both a federal and state share. Personal Care Assistance is an important and needed program, not least as a way of helping people stay at home and out of more expensive facilities.

Swanson said in her statement that Medical Assistance "provides a health care safety net to the most vulnerable adults and children in our State." She added: "Each taxpayer dollar that is fraudulently diverted means it is not going somewhere else where it is needed."


Outright theft of taxpayer funds as alleged by Swanson against a Brooklyn Park company, Sole Provider Nursing Services, is a constant problem. Government spends a lot of time and money trying to catch those who are gaming the system, in the same way that insurance companies are on the lookout for scammers. We don't know the particulars of this case but we do know that taxpayers demand vigilance, aggressive prosecution and restitution.

At the same time, we expect our government agencies to do everything they can to plug holes through which tax dollars flow to the wrong people. Swanson's complaint alleges some of the same problems cited in the 2009 auditor's report. For years, state officials have complained about how rising health-care costs are wrecking the budget. Why haven't these holes been plugged?

Stealing taxpayers' money is a crime. But what about spending it on unneeded services and programs? What about funneling money into programs that have a constituency but not a success rate? And what about those of us who demand a service (say, an expensive medical test) that is not needed but is "covered," meaning paid for by someone else?

We don't propose that squandering or wasting should be put in the same moral category as stealing. But at a time of high deficits and growing needs based on demography, wasteful spending is an immoral act. We would paraphrase Swanson by saying that every dollar wasted hurts those who really need it.

We all have our own definition of what spending is "wasteful" and what goes to those who "really need it." But personal care is a good place to hash that out, because there is no question that people really need it, and there seems to be no question that some of the funds are being wasted.

It's time to adopt a World War II home-front mentality toward government spending. We should not use anything we don't need, or fund any programs that are wasteful, in part so that those who truly need government's help can get it.

Pioneer Press
Article Publish Date: 
February 26, 2011