Serve the needy: Another report shows DPW falling short

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You can’t serve the public without public employees. That’s the reality confirmed in a report by the Service Employees International Union on caseworker understaffing at the Department of Public Welfare.

Although no one would call the SEIU an unbiased source since it represents caseworkers across the state, its report last week completes a disturbing picture recently painted by two other entities — the auditor general and the anti-hunger group Just Harvest.

Together, they show that Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens — low-income residents who apply for food stamps or Medicaid, and disabled and elderly assisted by home caregivers — have had difficulty accessing state programs.

The auditor general’s 85-page audit showed that poor oversight by DPW and a rocky transition to a new payroll system for home caregivers left thousands of public employees without paychecks for months, threatening the well-being of people who need help with tasks such as eating and bathing.

The Just Harvest survey, conducted by volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, revealed that food-stamp recipients suffered interruptions in benefits because of problems with their paperwork, lost documents and an inability to reach DPW caseworkers by phone.

Now the SEIU report claims the state is “chronically understaffed” by caseworkers who deal with aid recipients at county assistance offices. Ten years ago the welfare department had 8,000 caseworkers to serve 850,000 people on food stamps and 1.5 million with Medicaid, compared this year with 4,400 caseworkers for 1.8 million on food stamps and 2.1 million on Medicaid.

No wonder the department seems stretched to the breaking point. Each of the three appraisals focuses on a different aspect of a larger problem insufficient resources to serve a growing number of needy Pennsylvanians.

Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth struck the right note on a recent visit to Pittsburgh. She didn’t like what she was hearing about her department’s level of service and she promised to fix it.

It won’t happen overnight. Yet this third account of DPW’s performance is more evidence of a severe problem that deserves the urgent attention of not just the secretary but Gov. Tom Corbett himself.

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