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DHSS responds to public’s concern about food stamps continuing

DHSS director Muavaefa’atasi John Suisala [SN file photo]

Department of Human and Social Services has sufficient money in its approved fiscal year 2018 budget for the American Samoa American Samoa Nutrition Assistance Program (ASNAP) — food stamps — for the rest of the fiscal year, while the federal grantor has been briefed on the latest development regarding the arrests of three people accused in the food stamp fraud case, says DHSS director Muavaefa’atasi John Suisala.

The ASNAP program is funded by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

Samoa News has received concerns — the latest was over the weekend — from recipients and their family members over the financial impact of the food stamp fraud case on the program, especially when some $700,000 — according to court documents — is allegedly involved in the fraud and counterfeit case.

Responding to a long list of Samoa News questions, Muavaefa’atasi said “yes” when asked if is there sufficient funding for ASNAP for the rest of FY 2018, for which the program has an approved budget of $7.58 million.

He also said that this alleged fraud and counterfeit food stamp case would not have an impact on recipients.

The DHSS director explained that total recipients authorized in December 2017 stood at 3,981; and total recipients authorized to date for January 2018 is 3,891. “To date the monthly average authorized recipients for FY 2018 is 4,005,” he said.

Muavaefa’atasi noted that the number of recipients fluctuates monthly as new applicants are approved for benefits; and some recipients are terminated due to death, excess income, expired Immigration ID, move off-island; while monthly benefits for other recipients are placed on hold while they travel off-island, etc.

Asked what new steps DHSS has taken to prevent this type of alleged incident from recurring in the future, Muavaefa’atasi outline some of the preventive measures DHSS is working on, such as “strengthening our internal control procedures and restoring integrity to the ASNAP and confidence in our services.”

The director said, “Strengthening our department's management evaluation and compliance operations with a focus on developing a fraud detection unit to be responsible for detecting and investigating any case of alleged intentional program violation committed by ASNAP recipients, staff members, retailers and others” is another preventive measure, they will be using.

Additionally, the DHSS will be providing refresher training for all employees with special attention to internal control procedures, separation of duties and policies and procedures.

“We are also very excited with the rollout of a brand-new eligibility system for the ASNAP within the next few weeks,” Muavaefa’atasi said and explained that the new computerized system will replace the aging Talofa system that ASNAP currently uses.

He said the new ASNAP Food Assistance Delivery System (FADS) is funded by FNS and was designed and developed by the DHSS contractor, Advanced Solutions, Inc. of Colorado, in consultation with the ASNAP and FNS.

“The rollout of FADS is timely given that the system has many security measures built into it to prevent fraud including the type of fraud involved in the case that is currently under investigation,” the DHSS director explained. “Over the past several weeks, our contractor spent a great deal of time in re-evaluating FADS against this type of scenario and they feel confident that they have anticipated and implemented the necessary logic to address these types of situations.”

Some lawmakers and others in the community have questioned as to whether the USDA-FNS has been briefed on the local case. Samoa News posed the same questions to Muavaefa’atasi, who was also asked as to what was the response from the federal grantor.

The director confirmed that the federal grantor has been informed, saying that DHSS initially informed FNS on Jan. 8, 2018 of an alleged ASNAP fraud that was discovered just a few days before.

FNS was also informed of the “actions that we took the same day while we continue with internal inquiries as well as our plan to immediately refer the case for formal investigation and possible prosecution,” Muavaefa’atasi said, adding that FNS replied the next day that “this is a very serious issue and they need to research what FNS needs in terms of information and/or actions. They also offered to provide guidance and/or technical assistance if needed.”

FNS was given an update on Jan. 20 after the three arrests were made by local authorities in connection with this case and after they made their initial appearance in the District Court before they were all remanded to the Territorial Correctional Facility (TCF) until they could post bail to await their preliminary examinations.

Because of the fraud case, there are growing local concerns that the federal grantor might put a hold on funding thereby affecting recipients, many of them depending on this program on a monthly basis.

Asked if there is any indication from FNS that this will happen, Muavaefa’atasi explained that, “we held our first, of a series of monthly conference calls with FNS on this matter” on Jan. 25th “to talk about internal controls and potential actions that they may consider protecting the integrity of the ASNAP.

“We informed FNS of the actions that we have taken to date and our current efforts in restoring integrity in the ASNAP and confidence in our service and in strengthening internal control procedures to prevent this from recurring,” he said. “We also discussed the rollout, in the next few weeks, of our brand-new computerized eligibility system that will significantly help us with preventing future fraudulent activities.”

Samoa News also asked about steps DHSS/ ASG has taken to protect the program from being placed on federal ‘high risk’ again.

Muavaefa’atasi pointed to the brand-new computerized eligibility system coming on line as their answer. He said the new FADS will go-live on the weekend of February 16-19.

“FADS will not only improve the effectiveness, efficiency and integrity of the ASNAP but it will also significantly help in detecting and preventing fraud,” he noted.

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has offered no comments at this time regarding the alleged food stamp fraud case, due to the ongoing investigation and until he is fully briefed on the case. (See last Friday’s Samoa News edition for more details).