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Public assistance programs make millions of dollars in improper payments every year. Some of these improper payments occur because state and local agencies that administer the programs lack adequate, timely information to determine recipients' eligibility for assistance. This inability to share information can result in both federal and state tax dollars being needlessly spent on benefits for the same individuals and families in more than one state. In 1997, staff at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) began a project to help states share eligibility information with one another. The public assistance reporting information system (PARIS) interstate match helps states share information on public assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Food Stamps, to identify individuals or families who may be receiving benefit payments in more than one state simultaneously. Officials in almost all of the 16 states and the District of Columbia that participated in PARIS reported that the project has helped identify improper TANF, Medicaid, or Food Stamp payments in more than one state. Despite its successes, the project also has several limitations. First, the opportunity to detect improper duplicate payments is not as great as it could be because only one-third of the states participate in the project. Second, participating states do not have adequate protocols or guidelines to facilitate critical interstate communication. As a result, some states have reported problems that compromise the effectiveness of the project, such as difficulty determining whether an individual identified in a match is actually receiving benefits in another state. Third, state administrators for the TANF, Medicaid, and Food Stamp programs have not always placed adequate priority on using PARIS matches to identify recipients who are residing in other states. As a result, individuals may continue to receive or have benefits paid on their behalf in more than one state even after they were identified through the matching process. Finally, because the PARIS match is only designed to identify people after they are already on the rolls, it does not enable the states to prevent improper payments from being made in the first place.

About the GAO

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an agency that works for Congress and the American people. Congress asks GAO to study the programs and expenditures of the federal government. GAO, commonly called the investigative arm of Congress or the congressional watchdog, is independent and nonpartisan. It studies how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. GAO advises Congress and the heads of executive agencies (such as Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Department of Defense, DOD, and Health and Human Services, HHS) about ways to make government more effective and responsive. GAO evaluates federal programs, audits federal expenditures, and issues legal opinions. When GAO reports its findings to Congress, it recommends actions. Its work leads to laws and acts that improve government operations, and save billions of dollars.