Is it Time for a Name Change at the DPW?

A broad-based coalition is forming in the push to change the name of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare.  A letter of support delivered to the General Assembly last week was signed by five former governors: George Leader, Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker and Ed Rendell.  It begins by stating, “Words matter. Names matter. Stigma lasts.”

State Senator Bob Mensch (R-Montgomery) is joining forces with Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) to introduce legislation that would change the name of the DPW to Department of Human Services.  “Everyone assumes when you see the Department of Public Welfare that that is all they do.  In honesty they do a lot more than just welfare,” Mensch explains.  “It’s a department that doesn’t deserve a name that creates bias.” 

None of the 67-counties uses the term “welfare” for its human services agency, and Mensch believes Pennsylvania is the only state government that still refers to a Department of Public Welfare. 

“It really has a huge presence in our state and I think it would be appropriate to have a meaningful discussion around what that department does – calling it by its rightful name, which I believe should be Department of Human Services.” 

The Mensch/Costa bill already has 20-cosponsors in the Senate and it hasn’t even been introduced yet.  An identical bill being introduced in the House has 82-cosponsors.  To save taxpayer money, Mensch suggests a graduate changeover whereby all existing supplies are exhausted before new ones are ordered with the new name.     

The Campaign for What Works has also sponsored an online petition to help garner public support for the name change.

city, downtown, buildings

United Way Survey Uncovers Nonprofits’ Struggles

Nearly 70% of the 800-nonprofit groups responding to the United Way of Pennsylvania’s budget survey report feeling the effects of state budget cuts in 2012, and some indicate the cuts have been going on for five years or more.  Nearly half of the groups also report feeling the pinch from federal budget streams.

At the same time, more than three in four of the human services agencies responding to the survey say the economic downturn has increased the demand for their services.

“Over a third of the responding organizations (35%) reported turning away individuals needing service, while another 21% revoked services from individuals due to a lack of funding,” explained United Way of Pennsylvania President Tony Ross. 

United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne Counties President Gary Drapek tells Radio PA the crisis extends beyond the human services agencies to the people they serve, and Butler County United Way Executive Director Leslie Osche is especially concerned about a group she calls the ‘invisible middle.’

“It’s the struggling young people and the struggling families that tend to get lost in the shuffle, and become somewhat invisible in this process, because they’re not necessarily those who are in nursing home care or in institutional care of some sort,” Osche explains.

Tony Ross recognizes that state policymakers may not be able to increase funding in these tough times, but he’s still urging them to stop the cuts to human services.  Another recommendation is to implement performance-based budgeting that funds the programs that work.

“In the long run we will be wasting more money because more services will be needed if we don’t start funding the preventative services to the level that we should,” Drapek says.

Under the Capitol Dome

State Budget Votes Near

The state’s current budget was enacted with zero Democratic support last year.  This year may not be much different if Wednesday’s House Appropriations Committee meeting is any indication.  After two hours of debate, the committee advanced the $27.7-billion dollar spending plan along party lines.

The spend number may be almost 2% above this current budget, but most of the increases are due to mandatory costs like pension obligations and medical assistance.  “This budget contains no tax increases,” Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph (R-Del.) repeated twice for emphasis.

While better-than-expected revenues in the spring allowed Republican budget negotiators to spend a half-billion more than what was first proposed in February, Adolph told the committee the state is still on pace to end the fiscal year nearly $200-million dollars in the red.

“This is a sustainable budget that meets the needs of Pennsylvania residents,” Adolph concluded.

The recently released spreadsheets show $100-million dollars restored to the Accountability Block Grants that fund full-day kindergarten programs across the state.  Add that to $50-million being set aside for distressed school districts and budget supporters say all school districts will receive at least the same amount of state funding they got this year.

State Rep. Joe Markosek

State Rep. Joe Markosek

That doesn’t satisfy House Democrats though.  “I would challenge anybody in this room to go to any school director in the Commonwealth, in the public school system, and ask them if they think they are getting more money for educational purposes,” says Democratic House Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland).

Markosek also lamented a planned tax credit for “big business” at a time when county human services are facing 10% cuts.  That 10% cut, however, is half of what was proposed back in February.

Final House votes could come as early as Thursday, with Senate votes to follow.  The state’s new fiscal year starts on Sunday.  Details of other budget season priorities – like education reforms and the ethane tax credit – are still being finalized.

Governor Touts Human Service Block Grants But Faces Opposition

Surrounded by a bipartisan group of county commissioners this week, Governor Tom Corbett called on lawmakers to pass his proposed Human Service Block Grant to replace current state funding in seven human service areas.

State Senate Republicans released details Tuesday of a proposed 27.7 billion dollar budget for the next fiscal year, and it did  not include the block grant approach yet.  A spokesman says it’s still under discussion.

Governor Corbett says the current approach to funding human services provides no flexibility and enforces rigid rules that make it hard for people to receive individualized services.  He says the block grant approach will allow counties to prioritize the needs at the local level and cut the red tape.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania backs the block grant approach. President Jo Ellen Litz, a Lebanon County Commissioner, says it will give counties the flexibility they need to provide people with the services they need.

The group’s Vice President, Christian Leinbach of Berks County, says counties can better decide how the money should be spent and there are safeguards. He says local plans must be published, voted on by the commissioners in public and approved by the Department of Public Welfare.  He believes it provides more transparency and accountability than the current system.

But Representative Gene DiGirolomo, a Bucks County Republican, is against combining state money for seven human service areas into one funding stream.  He calls it a monumental shift and says the administration is moving too fast. He called for a pilot project to test the concept.

Human service providers say there are already waiting lists for many services and giving counties greater flexibility could leave them fighting each other for limited dollars. Even with the block grants, human service programs face a 10% reduction in funding.

Apartments, Apartment Building

Report Examines Affordable Housing Gap

Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom apartment in Pennsylvania comes to $835/month.  That means 2.2-minumum wage earners would have to work 40-hours/week in order to afford the average unit, according to the 2012 “Out of Reach” report

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25/hour. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition and Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania released the report, which concludes a Pennsylvania household must earn more than $16/hour to afford the average apartment (without spending more than 30% of income on housing). 

“It means that having a decent place to live – that people can afford, that’s near their job – it’s out of reach for many people who are working hard and playing by the rules,” says Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania executive director Liz Hersh. 

She says how state government addresses the budget can either make things better or worse for the housing market.  “We’re really seeing a lack of investment in accessible housing, even thought a small investment actually saves a lot of money in nursing home placement.”

Neither the Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program nor Homeless Assistance received funding in the governor’s budget plan. 

HEMAP may be restored through mortgage foreclosure settlement dollars.  While Homeless Assistance is slated for elimination, budget documents indicate that 80% of the savings would be transferred to Human Services Development Block Grants.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Critics: Food Stamp Asset Test is Bad Policy

The Department of Public Welfare will reinstate a food stamp asset test on May 1st.  “It will help to ensure that individuals will first deplete all readily available resources before relying solely on public assistance, and as a result preserve the benefit for those who have no other additional means or resources,” explains DPW spokeswoman Carey Miller. 

But the testimony received by the House Human Services Committee focused largely on the negative effects that some foresee for Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens.  “SNAP benefits are good for needy families and they’re good for the economy,” says Louise Hayes from Community Legal Services.  SNAP refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly referred to as food stamps.

Hayes believes more government red tape will lead to more needy families without the help they need to afford food. 

Following Thursday’s capitol hearing, opponents of the food stamp asset test delivered a petition with 10,000 signatures to Governor Tom Corbett’s office.   They say the new policy won’t save the commonwealth any money because food stamps are funded by the federal government, while state government shares the cost of administering the program.     

When Pennsylvania last had an asset test in 2008, the limits were $2,000 for households under the age of 60, and $3,250 for households with older or disabled individuals.  The asset test that’s set to take effect in May would increase those thresholds to $5,500 and $9,000 respectively. 

Assets subject to the test will include: cash, checking and savings accounts, as well as stocks, bonds and savings certificates.  Assets exempt from the test will include: homes, primary vehicles, educational savings accounts and all retirement plans. 

“This change is only expected to affect less than 1% of Pennsylvania’s population who are currently receiving the food stamp benefit,” Miller says.  As of December 2011, there were more than 1.8-million Pennsylvanians enrolled in the SNAP program.

Budget Plan Would Consolidate Human Services Funding into Block Grants

The governor’s proposed budget takes a new approach to human services funding by lumping seven separate line items into a single block grant.  “The innovation will give the counties the flexibility they need to identify their most pressing needs, and apply funds as they know best,” Corbett said during Tuesday’s budget speech

Jo Ellen Litz, CCAP, County Commissioners

CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County

The increased flexibility is welcome news to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), which has identified human services funding as its top legislative priority.  “Counties not only know what programs and services are needed at the local level, but also how they can be most effectively managed while keeping unnecessary costs to a minimum,” says CCAP President Jo Ellen Litz of Lebanon County.

While combining these seven line items the Corbett administration would cut about 20%, or $168-million dollars.  “So they’re going to have perhaps more flexibility, but somewhat less money,” says House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland).  “Over time, generally speaking, block grants go down not up.” 

But counties are used to human services funding cuts.  In fact, the next budget is poised to be the 10th consecutive spending plan that cuts state aid for the human services counties deliver.  “Although there is an overall reduction in the monetary amount that counties will be receiving for human services, we also think that the administrative savings that we realize will offset and mitigate that impact this year,” says Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes, who chairs CCAP’s Human Services Committee. 

The seven appropriations that are being proposed for block grant consolidation are: Mental Health Services; Intellectual Disabilities; County Child Welfare Special Grants; Behavioral Health Services, Homeless Assistance Program; Human Services Development Fund, and Act 152 Drug and Alcohol Program.

Capitol Rotunda - Facing House Chamber

Advocates Push PA Lyme Disease Law

Patients and doctors lined up to testify on the proposed Lyme and Related Tick-borne Disease Education, Prevention and Treatment Act.  The House Human Services Committee convened a capitol hearing on HB 272 this week.  “The latest statistics we have from 2009 show that there were almost 5,000 reported cases of Lyme disease in the state of Pennsylvania.  That is by far the highest number of any of the states,” says Chairman Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks).  Others later testified that those reported cases are likely just the tip of the iceberg. 

Lyme Disease rash

Lyme Disease will often leave a "bull's eye" rash.

The legislation would create a statewide Lyme disease education task force, and require that health insurers cover Lyme disease treatments.  “There are so many people suffering from this particular disease that is misdiagnosed so many times by a physician, either because they don’t have sufficient training or don’t understand how debilitating this disease can be,” State Rep. Dick Hess (R-Bedford) said in an interview with Radio PA. 

Julia Wagner, who chairs Lyme Action PA, testified that Lyme disease can have severe neurological effects.  “The impact of this disease is such that I was so cognitively affected that I could not string a sentence together.  I could no longer recognize the meaning of a red light, when I stopped at a traffic light,” Wagner says.  Lyme Action PA is a coalition of 19-Lyme disease support groups across the state. 

Hess’s bill has 30-bipartisan co-sponsors, and currently awaits action in the Human Services Committee.  The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania supports the educational aspects of the legislation, but testified that its insurance mandate is a step in the wrong direction.  “HB 272 is not just an insurance mandate, it also amounts to legislative endorsement of a controversial course of medical treatment,” says Jonathan Greer, vice president of the Insurance Federation of PA.  Despite patients’ testimony, Greer says the science behind long-term antibiotic treatment of Lyme is mixed.

Prescription Drug Abuse

Testifiers: PA Needs RX Drug Monitoring Program

Prescription drug abuse is an epidemic in Pennsylvania, according to State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks).  In efforts to rein in the problem, the chairman of the House Human Services Committee has introduced legislation to create a Pharmaceutical Accountability Monitoring System to give doctors and pharmacists the ability to monitor people they suspect of doctor shopping or pharmacy shopping.  “Then they’ll be able to tell this person that – hey – I’m not going to write this prescription because you’ve been at Dr. so-and-so yesterday for the same thing,” DiGirolamo tells us.

The House and Human Services Committee held the first of two hearings on HB 1651 Thursday.  A litany of speakers urged lawmakers to act on the bill.  “Pennsylvania is awash in prescription drugs of addiction, and many of them are tragically lethal.  The streets are full of prescription drugs of addiction,” said Deb Beck, president of the Drug & Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.  Others pointed to 2005 data that show nearly 1 in 20 Pennsylvanians used an opioid for non medical purposes in the past year. 

DiGirolamo says the cost to the state would be negligible because the bill gives pharmacists the responsibility of entering the information into the statewide database.  The Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association supports the initiative.  “Pharmacists probably more than anyone see the effects of diversion and abuse, and are put in the hard decision point of whether to dispense or not,” said Pat Epple, Association CEO.  Epple, however, did point out that the bill would not be without costs to pharmacies.  She also raised the point of “mail order” pharmacies, which would not be covered by the bill. 

DiGirolamo tells us 47 other states have already put similar tools in place.  A second hearing has been scheduled for next Thursday, because so many people expressed interest in testifying.  Details of the bill are still being hammered out.

Under the Capitol Dome

Human Services Concerns Raised as Budget Bill Advances

The State House has already advanced a $27.3-billion dollar budget bill, despite Democrats’ objections.  In fact all House Democrats voted against a budget that Minority Human Services chairman Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia) calls “cruel and draconian” in many ways.  “We believe that as the Republicans in the Senate get to know this budget better… there’s going to be a role for us in the negotiations,” Cohen said as he convened a hearing of the House Democratic Policy Committee on Thursday. 

The hearing probed the proposed state budget’s impact on human services.  United Way of Pennsylvania President & CEO Tony Ross has a mixed reaction to the House GOP budget bill.  “We want to thank the House for restoring some funding for the Human Services Development Fund, and also we want to encourage lawmakers not to cut what works,” Ross says.  He tells us that investments in human services keep people healthy and reduce long-term costs to taxpayers. 

The $23.5-million dollar Human Services Development Fund (HSDF) was zeroed out of Governor Tom Corbett’s March budget proposal.  The House GOP budget bill restored $19.9-million of those dollars.  Ross says the HSDF is the only flexible source of funding that counties have to address human services needs.  “What’s so wonderful about it is that it allows each county to determine where their need is greatest.” 

Among Ross’s biggest budget concerns is the Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP).  It too was zeroed out of the governor’s initial budget proposal, and House Republicans have restored about 75% of its funding.  Ross says the Federal Reserve has actually cited Pennsylvania’s program as more effective than the federal program for assisting citizens facing foreclosure. 

As the budget bill heads to the Senate, Ross says the United Way and others will continue their advocacy efforts.  “We hope that perhaps with the better than expected revenues… we can use some of that to restore and mitigate some of these cuts.”  Behavioral health services, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters are all facing 10% budget cuts under HB 1485.