West Virginia senators are so concerned about an agency that deals with some of the state’s most pervasive issues that they are demanding special attention from a committee representing key legislative leaders.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee agreed to send a flare after hearing from the Cabinet Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources.
A letter from Senator Eric Tarr asks the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to consider several concerns: the placement of children in out-of-state foster care, the agency’s use of contract nurses, the state of forensic group homes, and slow IT upgrades. that could help the agency improve its efficiency.
The Joint Committee on Government and Finance includes the top leaders of both parties in the Senate and the House of Delegates. It also has an investigative branch that can gather more information on priority issues.
Although some lawmakers have questioned whether DHHR has been able to keep pace financially to deal with its hiring challenges and societal stressors, Tarr said money was not the main issue. He focused on the duration and cost of IT upgrades that might actually help the agency be more efficient.
“It’s not a cost issue. This has been a leadership issue within DHHR,” Tarr, R-Putnam, said during comments in the Senate last week.
Tarr made similar comments at the end of a DHHR finance hearing last week. Noting the agency’s position as the largest recipient of state funding, Tarr concluded, “It’s about $7.6 billion of state money, so it deserves a long discussion. and that deserves accounts. We have dealt with some of these issues year after year after year.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin agreed that DHHR’s challenges have become so alarming that the Legislature needs to focus on the agency. It was Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, who first publicly discussed the call for greater oversight from the Joint Government and Finance Committee.
“I have proposed that the matters be considered by the Joint Committee on Government and Finance because of their seriousness. They need a committee which bears the full weight of the resources and powers of the legislature,” Baldwin wrote. in an email, explaining his request.
“We are talking about an agency that accounts for a quarter of the state budget and is responsible for the lives of vulnerable citizens.”
Those concerns were raised during a two-and-a-half-hour financial review last week by DHHR.
This Senate Finance Committee meeting considered a range of issues, including the plight of foster children who are sent to out-of-state facilities, the difficulty DHHR faces in retaining employees such as nurses or child protection workers and the mental health issues encountered. by the workers themselves.
Baldwin and DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch had a particularly heartbreaking exchange of stories about workers in extremely tense circumstances.
Baldwin described a recent conversation with a child protective services worker that struck him as outspoken. The senator asked what resources the worker needed that were not already available.
The child protective services worker told the senator, “We need one of those rooms where you can go break things.”
What she needed was mental health support for herself due to the emotional strains of work. A big limitation is that counseling providers in her community are already caring for many children she has to watch over, so going to the same place would be a potential conflict.
Crouch agreed with the assessment of the issue and relayed the story from an email sent to him by an employee.
“That email was disturbing,” he said. “This person said she had just quit her job and was considering suicide. She said she left the courtroom and considered going to the top of the parking lot and jumping off.
The worker did not act on his impulse but left the state to join her family, thinking they would protect her. “It caught my eye,” Crouch said.
When the worker returned to town, Crouch called for a meeting. She, too, said she could not reliably access mental health services due to accessibility and cost. “If she could find someone to get mental health services, she wouldn’t be able to pay PEIA’s copayment,” he said.
DHHR is almost ready to deploy a response to these situations, Crouch said. “Anyone who needs mental health counseling, we’re going to provide a way for those people to get into the system and we’re going to provide the co-pay,” he said.
During their lengthy meeting, the senators also focused on the agency’s understaffing with numerous positions. The agency’s budget presentation revealed 1,400 vacancies out of the agency’s 6,400 full-time positions.
The highest number of openings, 836, are for people who would earn less than $32,000 a year. The second highest position, 573 positions, is for workers paid in a wide range of $32,000 to $64,000 per year.
Senator Mike Maroney, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, questioned whether starting salaries are too low or whether salary scales are too rigid.
“Do you think it’s possible for a single mom with two kids to work for DHHR and get SNAP benefits?” Maroney asked, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Yes,” Crouch replied.
“It’s crazy,” said Maroney, R-Marshall. “I don’t understand why anyone would work for our state and qualify for SNAP benefits.”
Maroney continued, “I’m embarrassed to say what we pay some of these people starting out. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money, and I think this is one of those situations.
Croupton agreed. ” We struggle. I am very concerned about the future of DHHR employment.
Senator Chandler Swope asked who has the authority to improve salaries at the agency. “It looks to me like you have a classic tightening of the supply and demand curve,” Swope, R-Mercer, said.
“I always said we had two problems,” Crouch replied. “We don’t have the money to give everyone a 15-20% raise, no matter what it takes to compete with the private sector. If we did, we can’t find the staff at this point.
DHHR is a huge, multi-faceted agency responsible for many of the state’s most pronounced problems, including substance abuse, foster care, child protective services, and the severely disabled.
When Crouch made a similar budget presentation to the House Finance Committee late last month, Delegate Dianna Graves expressed concern, as did senators.
“When I look at the numbers, I fear the ship is sinking,” said Graves, R-Kanawha.
“I worry that we don’t have enough staff to do the job, and I worry about the people who are still with you. They’re with you because they care so much about the kids and the people they’re trying to help that they probably work to death.
At the end of the lengthy Senate meeting, Baldwin told Crouch that he was losing faith that the agency could solve its own problems.
“I also think there could be so many changes made by you and your office internally without having to involve the legislature,” Baldwin said.
“I don’t know if we’re at that point. I feel like the only potential for change is that we have to introduce legislation to force that change. It seems like a bad position for us.