New Jersey began offering an amnesty program to residents of Ocean County who may be guilty of welfare fraud.

The program began Tuesday following the arrest of 26 Lakewood residents accused of Medicaid fraud this summer.

RELATED: Arrests made in public benefit fraud case in Lakewood

It was the largest Medicaid fraud prosecution roundup in New Jersey. The suspects allegedly collected about $2 million in government assistance benefits. Officials say that there may have been many more people who were involved in the fraud.

New Jersey Comptroller Phillip Degnan says that the state’s Medicaid fraud division will open up a “recipient voluntary disclosure settlement program” to those who may be involved. The program will last for 90 days.

“They can get out from under the criminal consequences, but they will be required to make full repayment, pay a civil penalty and withdraw themselves from the [Medicaid] program for a period of a year,” Degnan says.

The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office says that they have received an influx of complaints from New Jersey residents about the amnesty program. This has prompted them to distance themselves from it.

A statement from the office’s spokesperson reads in part, “We have no authority to mandate or monitor how a state agency does business.”

The spokesperson adds that the office can’t prosecute crimes that aren’t brought to them.

Degnan says that he understands the criticism but doesn’t see the program as a “get out of jail free” card.

“This is…a more effective way to resolve these cases, in that there’s going to be full repayment,” he says.

Degnan says that the end goal is to recapture as much taxpayer money as possible and put it back into the Medicaid fund. Those who apply will have six months to pay back benefits and fines. 

Degnan stopped short of calling it an admission of guilt.

“In a sense an admission that they have improperly received Medicaid funds,” he says. “It is not an explanation as to why that happened, whether it was a mistake, whether it was an intentional act,” he says.

Some may still face prosecution for major offenses. Those who successfully complete the program will have applications flagged if they enter into the Medicaid program again.

An information meeting about the program was Tuesday evening. News cameras were not allowed inside. Degnan cited privacy issues as the reason for this.

Degnan says that if the program is successful in Ocean County, the state could expand it to other counties as well.

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State offers Medicaid fraud amnesty to Ocean County residents – News 12 New Jersey