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Report finds holes in child support enforcement

September 10, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It was 2 1/2 years ago when President Clinton pledged to make the federal government a ``model employer″ in collecting child support.

``We will find you. We will catch you. We will make you pay,″ Clinton warned as he signed an executive order requiring agencies to withhold past-due child support from payments to federal employees and contractors.

But a new report shows the federal government isn’t finding and catching everyone.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for enforcing child support laws, has paid nearly 1,200 Medicare doctors and medical researchers who owe $21.5 million in unpaid child support, according to an internal report.

Officials say it may be more trouble than it’s worth to go after so few delinquents. But the report argues that HHS should try harder to set a good example.

``It is untenable for this department to pay what amounts to income to individuals who it knows are out of compliance with child support obligations,″ wrote Inspector General June Gibbs Brown.

The department responded that it would be ``very aggressive″ in fixing the problems identified.

``Since we recommended the executive order it’s incumbent on us to really excel in our efforts here,″ said spokeswoman Melissa Skolfield. ``It’s a small percentage of our grantees, but nevertheless the amount of money that’s available is relatively large.″

Nationwide, parents owe $34.5 billion in overdue child support. Just 20 percent of families who are owed child support receive payments.

The inspector general’s report focused on a set of doctors and found 1,184 who owed $21.5 million. That was less than 1 percent of the 422,643 cases examined.

Using databases, the report matched child support delinquents with doctors who treat Medicare patients, researchers with grants from the National Institutes of Health and health care professionals who received loans or grants for school through the National Health Service Corps.

Most of the delinquent parents _ 1,105 of them _ were doctors serving in the Medicare program for the nation’s elderly.

But the inspector general was only able to examine the records of 55 percent of Medicare doctors, so the actual number who owe child support could be much higher.

The report recommends that HHS start enforcing Clinton’s executive order, saying it can start by doing the same computer matches that investigators did.

Beyond that, it suggests agencies require doctors to sign statements swearing they aren’t delinquent in child support before they can receive Medicare payments or grants. That would require new legislation punishing doctors if they lied.

Finally, it recommends that HHS cross-check applicants for federal money with a new database of all delinquents that is being created. The department should then deny payments to those not paying child support, it said.

A spokesman for the HHS agency that administers Medicare, Chris Peacock, said the agency is working to find a solution. But in written comments, Medicare’s top official objected to every suggestion by the inspector general.

It argued that a doctor caught through a computer match could simply reapply as a corporation and that even if a new computer system worked it would ``disrupt patient service″ if doctors were kicked out of the program.

The agency also complained that requiring doctors to sign a statement would be an ``administrative burden″ when very few doctors are in violation. Plus, it said, doctors might easily lie, and investigations would be expensive.

The National Institutes of Health also argued it is not worth denying grants to a few researchers when 99.72 percent owe no child support.

``This is an extremely high compliance rate, one which we would be pleased to achieve in other areas,″ said Anthony L. Itteilag, NIH deputy director for management.

But $21.5 million means a lot to families who have it coming, said Debbie Kline of the Association for the Enforcement of Child Support.

``There isn’t really an amount that is too small to overlook,″ she said. ``The federal government should not be paying money to criminals who are neglecting their children.″

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