Backed by several dozen anxious supporters, some on crutches or in wheelchairs, 23 passionate speakers on Tuesday railed against "Gestapo" tactics of home care fraud investigators.
But Stanislaus County supervisors unanimously decided to extend a fraud investigation program because, they said, curbing abuse helps the very people staging the emotional protest.
"We need to root out fraud, but we need to do it with dignity and respect," said Supervisor Vito Chiesa, trying to strike a common chord with those who nearly packed a government chamber at the urging of union organizers.
Several people held homemade signs with slogans such as "Care, not scare" and "They have bulletproof vests; we have walkers." Others passed around an editorial-type cartoon showing an elderly woman being wheeled away by a gruff-looking agent wearing a bullet bandoleer, with a caption reading, "Another 'success' from SIU," or Special Investigations Unit.
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$722K saved thus far
Five agents have saved taxpayers $722,800 since the unit ramped up in January, officials said, investigating the county's 6,241 low-income recipients and 4,500 providers of In-Home Supportive Services who receive $60 million per year. The agents carry badges, don't enter without permission and leave if asked, officials said.
But many in the audience scoffed.
"I'm afraid, my wife is afraid, and I don't think people should live in fear," recipient Donald Smith said after limping to the speaker's rostrum. "I'm not trying to cheat the government," he said.
Linda Ibrahim of Modesto and daughter Holly Yonan described a relative with Down syndrome who became terrified after he was awakened by agents who "stormed in" and searched his underwear drawer, Yonan said.
The 51-year-old man urinated on himself, then locked himself in a bathroom, wouldn't come out for hours and now awakes in fear at all times of night and is afraid to leave the house, they said.
"It was a horrible experience," Ibrahim said. "We're not criminals. We're decent people."
Others described people suffering from paranoia after agents reportedly told them they could be sent to nursing homes or that they didn't deserve government help.
Roney George, who cares for both his parents, and others accused agents of engaging in racial profiling against Assyrians.
George said officials reduced the family's benefits six times and reinstated them five times after he appealed; he won the sixth as well when an administrative law judge ruled in his favor, he said.
Director defends program
Christine Applegate, director of the county's Community Services Agency, acknowledged that her office has achieved mixed results in appeals. But, she said, "I assure you that's not how our investigators go in," responding to many stories from the audience. "There is no coercion," she said.
In addition to 150 cases referred by suspicious social workers, agents opened 37 at random and detected fraud in 23 of the 37 for a rate of 62 percent, said Elizabeth Beck, chief of the investigations unit.
Supervisors Chiesa and Jim DeMartini said they've accompanied agents and were impressed at how they save public money.
"They're well-trained, professional and respectful," DeMartini said. "I can tell you fraud exists. We'll help the people who need it, but it's not in the best interests of the public if we do not continue these investigations to assure the integrity of the program."
Charges may be filed
Beck cited several examples of exposed fraud, including $17,247 paid to a woman who deceived the agency with lies about her family, and another who received care after concealing a six-figure insurance settlement. The first will be referred to prosecutors who could bring charges of felony fraud, and the second might as well, Beck said.
Another man grossly overstated illness and need for care, while agents observed him taking daily walks and carrying bags, children, large rugs and an office chair, Beck said. A provider reported caring for him daily for hours but showed up just twice in 25 days for minutes at a time, Beck said.
Supervisor Jeff Grover said leaders would be negligent to halt fraud probes. While he spoke, protest organizers waved in disgust to people throughout the chamber, and perhaps 100 people shuffled, rolled and walked out.
"Liars with no compassion!" a man's voice was heard, after he exited.
Grover said charges of ethnic profiling are "total nonsense." He asked agents "to be as kind and compassionate as possible."
Supervisors agreed to discuss impacts, "if required by law," with United Domestic Workers, who represent all providers in this county and 10 others.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.