Set of Pennsylvania welfare changes fought in Commonwealth Court

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HARRISBURG -- Former cash-benefit recipients and groups of human service providers tried to convince a Commonwealth Court judge this week that he should stop a set of welfare changes including a transition to block-grant funding for 20 counties.

After testimony Tuesday and arguments Wednesday, Judge Keith Quigley told the parties they would hear from him. The attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked the judge to enjoin a legislative act, signed into law this summer, that ended the General Assistance cash benefit whose recipients included adults unable to work because of sickness or disability. It also created a program allowing 20 counties to move funding among seven human-service funding streams, such as mental health programs and child welfare.

They argued the Legislature had skirted procedural requirements in passing the bill and that the block grant program violates constitutional limits by allowing the counties to spend more in an area than appropriated by the General Assembly. And they said the judge should halt the changes because they would cause significant harm both to people who had relied on General Assistance cash benefits and to recipients of services curtailed by counties participating in the block grant.

Sister Mary Scullion, who works with the homeless in Philadelphia, testified Tuesday that her organization had seen an increase in people seeking help after the General Assistance cash benefit ended Aug. 1.

"People would say they have no source of income because they were recently cut off of General Assistance," she said.

Another witness, Billie Washington, 52, told the court she had been unable to pay rent at her grandmother's home in Philadelphia since losing her monthly benefit of about $200. Ms. Williams said she had worked as a home care attendant until illness forced her to stop in October 2011.

Senior Deputy General Counsel Linda C. Barrett defended the constitutionality of the act and argued that stopping it would harm the counties that have planned for the block grant. Participating counties, including Allegheny, can reallocate 20 percent of funding once the department approves their plan and 100 percent in the fifth year of the program.

Chairman Christian Leinbach of the Berks County commissioners said his county had applied for the program so it could better target the needs of residents. Four public hearings have been held, with a fifth scheduled, he said.

"It's not about taking money from existing programs as recognizing the needs in Berks County might be different than [the Department of Public Welfare] had determined," he said.

Even if the act was halted, Ms. Barrett said, the Legislature did not appropriate money for the General Assistance cash program. She also pointed to the inclusion in the act of a funding mechanism that provides hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money for nursing homes.

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Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141.


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