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‘Amnesty’ info offered after Lakewood welfare busts — and pissed-off people show up

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New Jersey State Comptroller Phil Degnan held a special informational meeting in Toms River Tuesday night to discuss a program that allows Ocean County residents who improperly collected Medicaid funds to avoid criminal prosecution by repaying the money they owe, plus a fine.

The event was held at the Pine Belt Arena, a facility with 3,100 seats, on the grounds of Toms River North High School.

A grand total of 35 people showed up.

That’s even though the arrest of 26 Lakewood residents on fraud charges reportedly sent hundreds of Lakewood residents scrambling this summer, asking how they could clean up their filings or withdraw from programs for which they didn’t qualify.

After a brief presentation of the Ocean County Recipient Voluntary Disclosure program, State Comptroller Philip James Degnan was peppered with questions — not about how the program worked, but rather, why it was being offered, and why lawbreakers were being given an “out” to avoid time behind bars. The initiative has popularly been an amnesty program, though the officials implementing it aren’t using that term.

Melinda Murray of Brick said she decided to attend the meeting to find out “if there’s any accountability, and there is no accountability.”

Murray said she’s convinced people may sign up for the disclosure program and then decide to not follow through with it, because they won’t face certain punishment.

“Six months, they’re giving them to pay it back. What happens when they don’t pay it back? What did he say? Well, they’re ineligible for the program for only one year,” she said.

She wondered out loud: “How are we going to be able to afford to prosecute them all?”

Murray suggested state officials get tougher with those who played the system.

“Maybe you need to tax lien the hell out of them. Maybe you need to give them community service in a community besides their own, so they can realize there are other people besides their own,” she said.

Murray said the program being offered is nothing more than smoke and mirrors “to make the rest of us shut up for a while. That’s all it is. It’s smoke and mirrors.”

She added the Medicaid cheats in Lakewood “robbed us knowing they were robbing us, and now they’re looking for a way out, it’s like watching a bad TV show with a bunch of mobsters making deals with each other.”

Molly Hernon from Lakewood said she feels disgusted, and considers the program being put forth to be a joke.

“They’re getting away with just doing whatever they want. There’s no provision to prevent them from declaring bankruptcy, and there’s no provision for them to leave the country,” she said.

Sue Jones, a single parent from Toms River, said those who stole money from Medicaid should face criminal prosecution, not get an easy way out.

“I’m giving up my tax dollars that I work so hard for legitimately, to let them do whatever they want to do, and they know how to work the system. I see what they’re doing,” she said.

Ocean County resident Carol Granger said it’s wrong that those who stole Medicaid funds won’t have to be held responsible for their actions.

“I’m angry. I pay taxes. I go to work every day, My husband goes to work. The taxes go up because we have to pay for the people who cheat the system and don’t pay and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Earlier this week, Degnan told New Jersey 101.5 the program was “a fair and effective way to recover funds that have been expended improperly, and to ensure compliance going forward.” And ex-Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi, lending his perspective as a former law enforcement official, said there are cases where it makes more sense to try and bring people into compliance than to expend lots of resources to go after a large number of people.

At the beginning of the presentation, Degnan announced no photographs or recording devices would be allowed inside the facility, to ensure everyone’s privacy.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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