Aggressive uniformed agents in bulletproof vests have terrorized disabled and elderly people in Stanislaus County, say people expected to stage a protest this morning.
Officials contend that investigators are saving public money by exposing people abusing government payouts for in-home services, a $60 million industry in this county.
A showdown could occur today before county supervisors, who will weigh whether to extend a pilot fraud detection program or shut it down.
"We think the supervisors should be ashamed of what is being done," said Steve Mehlman, communications director for a union representing care providers. "The threats, harassment and punitive actions by these agents are among the worst reported anywhere in California."
Never miss a local story.
The United Domestic Workers Homecare Providers Union today will rally more than 100 care providers and elderly and disabled clients, some of whom will speak about abusive agents, according to a media advisory.
The release says agents once "demanded to see the underwear drawer in an elderly woman's bedroom." Also, "an 85-year-old disabled woman was forced to try to lift her arm over her head" and couldn't, the release says.
"In several cases, clients were so traumatized that they were subsequently hospitalized," the release claims.
The union has not protested in any other of the 11 counties in which it represents care providers, Mehlman said.
Christine Applegate, director of the county's Community Services Agency, said agents don't wear uniforms or carry guns, but they do have badges, are trained law enforcement professionals and might wear bulletproof vests.
"They look for any conscious effort to defraud the system," Applegate said, which commonly involves overstating a disability or exaggerating how many hours per week a provider spends with a client.
Reports of suspected fraud piled up for six years after the state in 2004 assumed authority for investigating and did little about it, Applegate said.
Demand for in-home care has grown about 5.2 percent a year to 6,241 low-income people throughout Stanislaus County.
Relatives make up about 70 percent of caregivers in this county, the agency reports.
In-home Support Services saves money by keeping people out of nursing homes, which are even more costly to taxpayers.
When Gov. Schwarzenegger late last year launched a $26.5 million campaign to uproot fraud, Applegate's office got $397,775 and created a pilot fraud unit, promising to issue a report this month.
Since then, tightened controls have prompted social workers to reject half of new applications. The backlog is under control and "overall program integrity is improving," the report reads.
Applegate's Special Investigations Unit initially hoped to conduct 100 probes per month, but it has opened 478 cases and completed 187 because such investigations take more work than estimated, the report says.
Of those, agents detected fraud in 142 cases and hope soon to refer two cases to the district attorney's office for potential prosecution, the report says. Applegate said confidentiality rules prohibit her from revealing details.
Of the 142 cases, 82 percent stemmed from lying by both provider and client, the report reads.
The unit will save about $723,000, not counting $143,000 in overpayments that the county will refer to collections, the report says. Most of that comes from state and federal agencies, which provide $356,800 of $421,000 in the county's annual In-home Support Serv- ices budget.
Applegate questioned how many providers are represented by the union, which occasionally lodges complaints about agents, she said. Otherwise, "we actually haven't heard that many complaints directly," she said.
Mehlman said fraud should be exposed, but that inflated claims of success are "totally bogus" because many cases are being appealed and others were overturned.
"There had never been any real proof that fraud in IHSS is widespread, yet Stanislaus County put together this unit of uniformed agents who essentially are performing raids on people's houses," Mehlman said. "There are ways to find out if fraud is being committed, and we don't think this is one of them."
Today's meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. in the basement chamber at Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.
On the Net:
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.