Legislators debate Pa. block grant expansion

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HARRISBURG -- The Corbett administration wants to expand a human services block grant program, but critics in the Legislature and some social service groups say there's not enough evidence yet to tell if it works.

The block grant program combined seven different funding line items into one grant for counties to administer. It includes funding for services such as mental health and intellectual disability community programs, child welfare special grants, homeless assistance, behavioral health services, and drug and alcohol funds.

Proponents of this approach say it gives counties more flexibility and pushes decision-making from the state to the local level. Critics say it could hurt vulnerable populations by making them compete for already scarce funds.

The block grant program started in 2012 with only 20 of the state's 67 counties participating; last year it expanded to 30 counties.

Mr. Corbett wants to open up the block grant to any county that wishes to participate, though it would not be mandatory. "We're supportive of it. We think it's a great opportunity for the counties to create great, person-centered care," said Eric Kiehl, a spokesman for the state's Department of Public Welfare.

But critics have assailed a recent report issued by the department as one-sided.

The 34-page report was mandated by the legislation that put the block grant in place. It cites numerous anecdotal examples, from counties that have block grant funding, of how it has been helpful: Wayne County initiated parenting classes for parents who are drug and alcohol consumers; Lehigh County was able to shift additional funding into its drug and alcohol program; Greene County hired a family caseworker to work with families who do not fall specifically under one system.

But the report does not include data on how many people were served prior to the block grant being put in place in 2012, and also includes no information about county-level administration costs -- which had been touted as an area of savings from the block grant.

Comparative service data from prior years is not available for all of the human services programs, the report states.

A letter from several mental health and disability organizations to all state legislators said "significant deficiencies in DPW's Annual Report argue strongly for an independent evaluation of the efficiency of the block grant."

"It's a glowing report about how good it's doing, but there's no comparison to the prior years," said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, chair of the House Human Services Committee and a vocal critic of the block grant.

Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Dauphin, who has been pushing for an independent study of the block grant, also said he believed the DPW's report is not a meaningful assessment. "It's very relevant on a controversial issue to ask for an independent study of if this has been good public policy or not," he said.

In Westmoreland County, which is in its first year of being part of the block grant, there haven't been any major funding changes, though Dirk Matson, director of Human Services, said he is hopeful the county will be able to shift about $80,000 to $100,000 in unused funds at the end of the year.

Allegheny County has used some funds to assist ex-offenders leaving jail with services so they will be less likely to re-offend, and has increased drug and alcohol programming, said Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.

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