A House panel voted Tuesday to give every lawmaker - and potentially every Arizonan - access to a list of everyone getting government assistance as the first step to dealing with welfare fraud.
The 6-3 party-line vote by the House Government Committee came on the request of Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista. Stevens said he wants to use his personal ability to work with databases to ensure that the information each agency has is accurate.
HB2276, which now goes to the full House, starts by opening up the records of three specific programs: the state Medicaid system, the long-term care system and the Kids Care program that provides health care to children of the working poor.
But Stevens made it clear that this is just a first step. Eventually he wants driver license information from the Motor Vehicle Division and information on who has filed state tax returns from the Department of Revenue, though he said that would not include actual income information.
The bill may not even stop there.
As approved Tuesday, HB2276 says the names of those enrolled in these programs "are public records and available to the public'' in accordance with the procedures of state law. That alarmed Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
"If we want to stigmatize people that are participating in these programs, let's just do it and put a scarlet letter on everybody when they go to the office and apply for the program,'' he said. Stevens said his intent is only to let legislators themselves have the list, not everyone else. And Stevens, who said he would do the research on his personal computer, said he would take all the necessary precautions and sign any required non-disclosure statements to keep information confidential.
But not everyone on the committee thinks only lawmakers deserve the information.
"The way I see it is, this is public money, public money that's being given (in) public assistance,'' said Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park. "When somebody agrees to public assistance, there has to be some agreement that, 'I'm agreeing to public assistance, I have to have some of that information made public.' ''
Stevens questions whether the information in state computers is accurate. He said state agencies don't routinely check the validity of what they have.
Stevens said his background in computers would allow him to go through each database to "flag'' apparently erroneous information.
The next step, he said, would be to compare the information each agency now keeps separate. That, Stevens said, would allow him to see whether the address listed for a specific person in motor vehicle records is the same as it is for tax records and for enrollment in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
Ultimately, he said, the systems could be coordinated so that each Arizonan has a unique identification number, making it easier for an update to one agency's database to be incorporated into all of them.
The ultimate goal, though, is to check for fraud.
Stevens said Arizona spends anywhere from $1 billion to $3 billion a year providing services to illegal immigrants, what with health care, education and law enforcement. He said legislators, charged with protecting the public's funds, have a responsibility to ensure that funds are not being wasted.
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said getting down to that level of detail is a job for those each agency hires to ensure that applicants for programs are legally entitled to the benefits.
"We are not qualified, we are not staffed, we don't have the capacity to look at any of this,'' he said.
"I am qualified,'' Stevens responded.
Chabin said if Stevens is concerned that agencies aren't properly screening applicants he should ask the Auditor General's Office to conduct an investigation.
Stevens countered that could take up to a year. And he said that once he finds problems, it will be up to the agencies to determine if the people whose records he questions are, in fact, entitled to the benefits.
Even some of the Republicans on the panel, while agreeing to support what Stevens wants, expressed concern.
"Generally, I'm not a big fan of a government database and someone in the government gathering a bunch of information from different sources,'' said Rep. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix. He questioned how useful the information Stevens compiles might be.
For example, he said Stevens may turn up the fact that someone is getting state health care but does not have a driver's license or did not file a tax return.
"There could be so many different explanations for any number of those things,'' Driggs said.
And Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert, said he was "uncomfortable'' with the idea.
The measure could have another problem. AHCCCS lobbyist Monica Coury said federal health privacy laws preclude her agency from sharing any information with those not involved in administering the program. Stevens disagreed, saying he has a legal opinion from a legislative attorney who said it's OK for lawmakers to know who is enrolled as long as AHCCCS doesn't say what treatments are being provided.