LINCOLN — A new state audit reveals that the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, in a haste to beat a federal deadline for spending federal funds, improperly mailed out nearly $8 million in energy assistance checks, including some to recipients the agency knew were dead.
But agency officials said there is no indication “aside from isolated circumstances” that payments were made to households that did not qualify for the help.
State Auditor Mike Foley uncovered the problem, which involved checks of $250 and $500 sent in late August 2011, five weeks before a federal deadline to spend the money.
Foley said Monday that the agency violated its own rules for sending out the money in an attempt to beat the deadline.
The money was sent directly to households that had previously qualified for crisis help with utility bills, although state rules require the money to go directly to the utility companies in such cases.
Kerry Winterer, chief executive officer of HHS, agreed that the money should not have gone to households and said HHS has made changes to prevent a recurrence of the problem. HHS is the administrator of $42 million in federal funds to help pay for heating and cooling expenses for low-income Nebraskans.
Foley said that some checks were in excess of what was needed to alleviate an immediate crisis, a violation of state rules.
Auditors also found some instances where program participants were not behind in their utility bills and actually had credit balances, yet they received and spent the payments anyway.
But Winterer said the money was distributed after the heating season ended, so it served to reimburse households for bills already paid. He said there is no state or federal requirement that recipients spend the money on utility bills.
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