HARRISBURG — A plan to change the name of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Human Services continues to advance in Harrisburg, albeit slowly.
Advocates have been pushing the state to change the name for some time, citing the fact that very little of what the agency does is “welfare” in the way the public thinks of the word — direct cash assistance to the poor.
The department administers services such as overseeing adoption and foster care, aiding in child abuse prevention, child support enforcement and services related to mental health, drug addiction and serving people with intellectual disabilities. It also administers programs for low-income families such as food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance.
Advocates argue the negative connotations of the word welfare should not be used against the assistance the agency provides and that Pennsylvania is one of only two states that continue to use the word “welfare” in the name of their human services agency.
“There’s definitely a growing recognition of the need to call something what it is, and what it is is human services,” said Stephen Drachler, a spokesman for the coalition pushing for the change, which includes numerous Allegheny County nonprofits.
“A very small percentage of what DPW does is welfare as we know it,” said Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor.
The name-change bill passed the House last summer and passed the Senate earlier this month, but because of changes the Senate made to the bill, the legislation must go back to the House for its approval before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.
The Senate’s changes would require the department to create a fraud tip line 1-866-DHS-TIPS, or, if that number is not available, “a substantially similar telephone number acronym,” according to a copy of the bill.
The department already has a fraud hotline (at 1-800-932-0582), but the bill’s requirements would codify that into law. The bill also would require businesses accepting food stamps or any medical facility accepting Medicaid to “post a sign containing information regarding the toll-free DHS fraud tip line.”
In about a year’s time, the department received 18,219 tips about fraud via the existing tip line, regular mail and online; of those, the Office of Inspector General conducted 5,038 investigations. The department estimates it avoided losing $17.3 million as a result of those investigations, according to DPW statistics.
The House is expected to take up the bill this fall, said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall. A spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett’s office says his administration supports the bill.
The name-change legislation appears to have broad bipartisan support within state government and outside of it; last year five former governors said they supported renaming the agency.
The change would be phased in over time, with items such as signs, program literature and stationary changing gradually to hold down costs.
“We’ll be referring to ourselves as the Department of Human Services, but the next day we’re not all going to get new business cards,” said Kait Gillis, a DPW spokeswoman. She said the department estimates the cost of the change at about $1 million over a period of several years.
Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.