Last year, 60 Minutes did a segment on the impact of errors in the Social Security Administration’s Master Death File—a database that stores dates of death for Americans. The system stores 86 million records, and despite all best efforts, it still has some issues.
60 Minutes pointed out that errors in the system contribute to millions of dollars in improper payments each year. After all, the system would seem to indicate over 6.5 million Americans over the age of 111 when, in fact, there are probably fewer than 100. On the other hand, false positives where people find themselves mistakenly placed on the list, lead to nightmarish scenarios for obtaining loans, opening bank accounts, and other everyday tasks.
This story demonstrates one of the largest challenges for government agencies: how to use imperfect data sources to minimize fraud, waste, and abuse while also not “harassing” legitimate people and businesses. And unlike a private business that may view a false positive as an inconvenience (who hasn’t had to call their credit card company to say that “yes, that large ice cream purchase was legitimate”), government officials are severely criticized when they act on false positives. In effect, they are criticized for not acting and they are criticized for acting.
Pondera suggests that governments mitigate the effects of false positives by using composite indicators that draw information from multiple sources—both simple data matches like the Master Death File and more complex behavioral sources. For example, a Medicaid investigator would feel much more confident looking into a person who not only shows up on the Master Death File, but also appears to be traveling 100 miles for 20-minute doctor appointments, receives highly unusual (and expensive) procedures for their apparent diagnosis, and often sees two doctors in distant cities on the same day.
Anyone who has worked for or with government program integrity units understands the unique pressures they face. Combining available data sources with intelligent analytics can go a long way toward helping them investigate the right cases while not interfering with program delivery.