Ohio ends plan to collect old welfare overpayments

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio has decided to kill a much-derided plan to collect accidental welfare overpayments going back to at least 1985, a top official said Thursday.

Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services Director Michael Colbert said the state is returning to its previous policy of collecting debts up to 10 years old. However, he said, the state would only go after overpayments resulting from fraud not from a mistake on the state's part.

"It's not the time now to go back 20 years, unless it's a fraudulent situation," he said. "If it's not fraud, we don't need to go back to very vulnerable people who might be trying to make a transition. Logistically, it is very hard to track."

The decision was made in late 2010 to extend the collection period for state welfare overpayments indefinitely to mirror a change made by the federal government.

At the time, Colbert was the department's chief fiscal officer. But he said he was not consulted about the decision. He later was appointed head of the department when Gov. John Kasich took office.

"We think it (the decision to collect old overpayments indefinitely) impacts a very vulnerable population, and my position is this population doesn't need this as public policy," Colbert said.

The decision to extend the collection period was widely criticized by advocates for the poor. It mostly affected Ohioans making 70 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $400 a month.

Colbert said his department realized the 2010 change was in effect when residents started calling his office about it. He said the department's automated system started sending letters three to four weeks ago. The change to extend the collection period was put into the computer in 2010, he said.