West Virginia senators are so concerned about an agency dealing with some of the state’s most pervasive issues that they are demanding the special attention of a committee representing top legislative leaders.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee agreed to send a signal after hearing the Cabinet Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Resources.
A letter by Sen. Eric Tarr is asking the Joint Government and Finance Committee to review several concerns: the out-of-state placement of foster children, the agency’s use of contract nurses, the state of forensic group homes, and the slow pace of computer upgrades that drive it could help the agency to improve its efficiency.
The Joint Government and Finance Committee includes leaders from both parties in the Senate and House of Representatives. It also has an investigative arm that can gather more information on priority issues.
Though some lawmakers have questioned whether DHHR has been financially able to keep up with its hiring challenges and societal stressors, Tarr said money wasn’t the primary issue. He has focused on the duration and cost of computer upgrades that could help the agency become more efficient.
“It’s not a spending issue. It was a leadership issue within the DHHR,” said Tarr, R-Putnam for comments in the Senate last week.
Tarr made similar comments at the conclusion of a finance hearing for DHHR last week. Noting the agency’s position as the top recipient of government funding, Tarr concluded, “This is $7.6 billion of government money, so it deserves long discussion and accountability.” We have dealt with some of these issues 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 debated and asked for more oversight from the Joint Government and Finance Committee.
“I have requested that the issues be considered by the Joint Government and Finance Committee because of their seriousness. They require a committee that will bear 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 has responsibility for the lives of vulnerable citizens.”
These concerns were raised for two and a half hours Financial review last week from DHHR.
A number of issues were examined at this Senate Finance Committee meeting, including the plight of foster children being sent to out-of-state facilities, DHHR’s difficulties in retaining staff such as nurses or child protection workers, and the challenges faced by the mental health health of the workers themselves.
Baldwin and DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch had a particularly poignant exchange of stories about workers in extremely tense circumstances.
Baldwin described a recent conversation he had with a child protection worker who struck him as an outspoken speaker. The senator asked what resources the workers needed that weren’t already there.
The child protective services worker told the senator, “We need one of those rooms where you can go and break things.”
What she needed was psychological support for herself due to the emotional strains of the job. A major limitation is that the counseling providers in her community already care for many of the children she has to care for, so it would be a potential conflict for those same ones place to go.
Crouch agreed with the assessment of the problem and shared the story of an email a co-worker sent him.
“That email was disturbing,” he said. “This person said they just quit their job and were contemplating suicide. She said she left the courtroom and considered going to the roof of the parking garage and jumping off.”
The worker didn’t act on her impulse, but drove out of state to be with her family, feeling she would protect them. “That caught my attention,” Crouch said.
When the worker returned to town, Crouch requested a meeting. She, too, said she could not reliably benefit from mental health services due to accessibility and cost. “If she could find someone to get mental health services from, she wouldn’t be able to pay the co-payment to PEIA,” he said.
DHHR is almost ready to respond to those situations, Crouch said. “Anyone who needs psychological counseling, we will provide a way for those people to get into the system and we will make the co-payment,” he said.
During their lengthy meeting, senators also focused on how understaffed the agency remains with many positions. The agency’s budget presentation revealed 1,400 vacancies out of the agency’s 6,400 full-time positions.
The highest number of vacancies, 836, are for people who would make less than $32,000 a year. The next highest, 573 positions, are for workers paid anywhere in a wide range of $32,000 to $64,000 per year.
Senator Mike Maroney, chair of the Senate Health Committee, wondered if starting salaries were too low or salary ranges too inflexible.
“Do you think it’s possible for a single mother with two children to work for DHHR and qualify for SNAP benefits?” Maroney asked, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Yes,” Crouch replied.
“This is 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’re paying some of these people in the beginning. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money and I think this is one of those situations.”
Crouch agreed. “We fight. I am very concerned about the future employment of DHHR.”
Senator Chandler Swope asked who had authority to improve pay at the agency. “It looks to me like you have a classic supply-demand curve crisis,” said Swope, R-Mercer.
“I’ve always said we have two problems,” Crouch replied. “We don’t have the money to give everyone a 15, 20 percent raise, whatever it takes to compete with the private sector. If so, we cannot locate the staff at this time.”
DHHR is a vast, multifaceted agency responsible for many of the state’s biggest problems, including drug addiction, foster care, child protective services, and the severely disabled.
When Crouch presented a similar budget presentation to the House Finance Committee late last month, delegate Dianna Graves, along with the senators, voiced concerns.
“Looking at the numbers, I worry the ship is going down,” said Graves, R-Kanawha.
“I’m concerned that we don’t have enough people to do the job and I’m concerned about the people who are still with you. They are with you because they care so much about the children and the people they want to help that they are probably working themselves to death.”
At the end of the long Senate session, Baldwin Crouch said he was losing confidence in the agency’s ability to solve its own problems.
“I also think that you and your office could make so many changes internally without involving the legislature,” Baldwin said.
“I don’t know if we’re at that point. In my view, the only potential for change is that we need to introduce legislation to force that change. That seems like a bad position for us.”