As part of an initiative to prevent fraud and potentially help save tens of millions of dollars in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration announced plans to test devices that would scan fingerprints and snap photographs of disabled and elderly residents who receive in-home care.

Starting April 1, the state will roll out the high-tech devices (on loan from the manufacturer, MorphoTrak) in Sacramento, San Diego and a few rural communities in a two-month pilot program, according to Lizelda Lopez, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. The technology, she said, will download fingerprint and photo data to office systems to help the state keep better track of the 460,000 people in the In-Home Supportive Services program.

But in light of California's ailing economy, disability rights groups and some lawmakers attacked the program as not only a waste of money, but also a violation of the terms legislators agreed to last year.

"The Legislature allowed them to take fingerprints of all the clients and providers," said Steve Mehlman, communications director for United Domestic Workers Homecare Providers Union. "Nothing was ever said about taking pictures. They're going far beyond what was authorized."

In last year's budget, the governor and the Legislature agreed on an anti-fraud proposal to save more than $10 million, Lopez said, and part of the requirement was to set up a secure identification system to prevent the problem of duplicate aid.

"In order for that to work, we need to establish that a fingerprint belongs to an individual," she said. "We determined that this was the best long-term solution that we have found so far."

The Price of Protection

The photograph, with a fingerprint to match, would allow the state to have accurate identification information for each recipient of in-home care, Lopez said.

But at what cost?

The simple question, asked by disabled rights group, has no straight answer. If the test run goes well, Lopez said, preliminary estimates showed that the state would need between 600 to 1,000 devices, which range in cost from $4,500 to $5,000. That means these devices could cost the state up to $5 million. But, Lopez stressed, it's too early to know exactly how many devices the state would use, and the price estimates don't factor in bulk purchasing rates.

The money used to fund this program, Lopez said, would come from last year's budget, which included an investment of $10 million from the state's general fund, matched by federal and county funds and given to counties to conduct fraud investigations.

"Investments had to be made to get us to where we wanted to be," said Lopez, adding that the devices encrypt the data to keep information secure. "We have to protect people's identity and personal information."

But some lawmakers feel taking pictures sends the wrong message, and the funds should be used elsewhere.

"I am outraged that this administration is again targeting our lowest income seniors and people with disabilities as if they were criminals we need to monitor," said Assemblymember Hector De La Torre, D-South Gate, in a release. "How is that we can afford millions for cameras yet we continue to cut their services and the money they live on?"

 

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer