Reach out and touch someone – Oklahoma House passes reforms in Lifeline ‘free’ phone program

OKLAHOMA CITY – The House of Representatives has advanced legislation to reform the federal “Lifeline” program. The federal program is intended to provide telephone service to low-income individuals, but has drawn scrutiny after news reports that individuals were getting duplicate landlines and/or cellphones on the taxpayers’ dime. 

State Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, is sponsor of House Bill 2165, to authorize the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to mandate more documentation from service providers. A summary from state House staff said the proposal “specifically requires phone service providers to document and verify their customers’ initial eligibility and continued eligibility and ensure that customers do not receive multiple phone lines.” Echols’ proposal would, if enacted, give the state regulatory commission power to set and enforce fines and not reimburse non-compliant companies.

In Oklahoma, two phone service companies — TerraCom LLC and YourTel America Inc. – paid a total of $1 million in fines to the Federal Communications Commission after findings that the firms were issuing phones right and left without documentation of need.

The Lifeline program has allowed companies to collect reimbursements ranging from $9 to $34 per subscriber. 

Rep. Echols thanked his colleagues for approving the bill on March 6, observing, “The Lifeline program was originally created to provide free landline phone service to the poor and elderly, but the program is currently giving tax dollars away to pay for duplicate landlines and cell phones.”

In recent days, Echols pointed to instances of individuals receiving phones who had not even asked for them. In 2012, the state commission says, $236 million was garnered for the Lifeline program, with those resources drawn from the Universal Service Fund, a tax on telecom subscribers. Reporter Paul Monies recently found, in statistical analysis, that in Oklahoma, spending on the program quadrupled from 2008-12.

Fraud potential is even higher in Oklahoma than other states, Echols said, because the U.S. government program allows payment of extra dollars “to individuals living on land that was originally part of an Indian reservation, meaning there is more money to be had through fraud in Oklahoma than in many states.”

H.B. 2165 sailed through the House 92-0. Last month, Echols’ bill cleared the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Natural Resources and Regulatory Services in an 8-0 vote. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.comand follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.