Another federal subsidy program is garnering congressional attention for large amounts of fraud, waste, and abuse. This time it’s the Lifeline program that provides discounts to low-income households for home or wireless telephone and broadband service. This program, which many Americans have likely never heard of, distributed $1.5 billion in subsidies to 12.3 million households in 2016.
The problem is that a recent study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) could not confirm the eligibility of a whopping 36% of program beneficiaries. The surprising part of this is that validating eligibility is as straightforward as checking an applicant’s enrollment form against a qualifying benefit program, such as Medicaid-- if someone has already been deemed eligible for Medicaid, then they are also eligible for Lifeline.
It is also troubling to note that the 84-page GAO report comes after a 2010 study that found problems with the program and led to a number of recommended reforms in 2012. Fast forward five years to today, and the problems persist.
Fraud in Lifeline stems from several factors common to most government programs: pressure to distribute timely benefits, a lack of effective data matching, and service providers (in this case telecommunications carriers) that benefit from a lack of control. The GAO actually called this last one out in their report when they explained that “companies may have financial incentives to enroll as many customers as possible” despite questionable eligibility.
None of the problems outlined in the report are particularly difficult to solve from a technical standpoint. But turf battles often lead to data sharing problems that lead to eligibility validation issues. And an unwillingness to enforce fraud reforms on businesses provides them with incentives to simply “look the other way”. Multiply this problem over the 2,300 federal subsidy programs operating today, and this adds up to a lot of money, all lost due to fraudulent, wasteful behavior.