AUGUSTA, Maine — During his campaign for governor, at nearly every stop and in nearly every speech, Paul LePage vowed if elected to address what he called the rampant abuse of Maine’s welfare system.

On Wednesday, Governor LePage put welfare fraud squarely in his sights, calling upon his recently created task force, the Fraud and Abuse Prevention Team, to intensify its efforts to deter abuse.

LePage, who spent many of his formative years homeless on the streets of Lewiston, has argued that the safety net provided by some social service programs has bred a system that encourages complacency. In announcing the task force’s new focus, LePage said the system needs to change.

“People who receive benefits that they are not entitled to continue to drain existing resources that should be used for those who are truly in need,’’ LePage said. “The work of this group reinforces the message that we take fraud and abuse very seriously and that those who abuse the system will face significant consequences.”

The nine-member team, made up of members of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Attorney General, has two charges: To identify fraud before it happens and to make sure all cases of potentially illegal activity are properly investigated.

LePage said programs such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, food stamps and other programs will be targeted and it won’t just be recipients in the hot seat. Providers will be scrutinized as well.

Among the initiatives of the Fraud and Abuse Prevention Team are:

  1. Strengthening the fraud hot line at DHHS to encourage more reports.
  2. Improving training for DHHS staff to identify fraud
  3. Reviewing laws that may make it difficult to remove recipients from benefit programs when they violate program rules.

“It is critical that we strengthen our efforts to prevent and address fraud throughout the programs within the department,’’ said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “Our resources to help people in need are limited and we must ensure that those resources are being delivered and used appropriately.”

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the creation of the Fraud and Abuse Prevention Team is just another example of LePage governing by anecdote as opposed to governing based on data and good research.

“There is a lot of anecdotal information about welfare fraud but anytime you ask someone for details, they can’t provide them,” Rotundo said. “I’m not saying that there isn’t some fraud, but I don’t think there is this massive fraud that the governor would lead people to believe.”

According to the Attorney General’s office, from January 2010 to March 2010, six cases of MaineCare provider fraud were successfully prosecuted, resulting in $4 million in restitution.

In addition, there were 15 cases of fraud that were settled out of court, resulting in the recovery of $5 million in state dollars, according to the AG’s office. In May, a Maine woman pleaded no contest to welfare fraud and forgery for providing false statements on Department of Health and Human Services applications for social services.

LePage administration officials believe there are still more cases out there waiting to be uncovered.

“This coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute fraud is a high priority and we will aggressively pursue those who steal from the system,” Attorney General William Schneider said.

Rotundo countered that if the state plans to go after welfare fraud, it better be prepared to examine all types of fraud with the same zeal.

“If, in fact, the evidence we have is true, that there isn’t much fraud, then spending a lot of time and money going down the road is not a good idea,” Rotundo said.

LePage has been an ardent critic of welfare abuse and is likely to continue going after welfare reform while in the Blaine House.

The $6.1 billion biennial budget that passed in June included a five-year cap on TANF benefits, something LePage pushed for even though statistics show that a minuscule percentage of recipients received benefits for more than five years. According to DHHS statistics, about 7o percent of TANF recipients received benefits for less than one year and 85 percent received assistance for less than two years.

During the budget debate, the governor also tried to make additional welfare cuts, including to general assistance, that were not supported by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Some proposed changes to social services floated by Republicans were suspected of violating the Constitution.

Still, when LePage signed the budget, he said it did not do enough to cut welfare spending and he vowed to go after changes next year.