Pennsylvania's acting welfare chief has 'big stuff' on plate
May 27, 2013 4:00 AM
By Kate Giammarise Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Beverly Mackereth has come a long way since her time as a social worker at the York County Blind Center, aiding visually impaired clients in finding services. Or her years as a caseworker at the county's Children and Youth Services agency, overseeing investigations of child abuse.
Now Pennsylvania's acting director of the Department of Public Welfare, Ms. Mackereth is leading an agency with 16,000 workers and a budget of more than $28 billion.
She was nominated last month to be the department's secretary, but must be confirmed by the state Senate. If she gets the job, she'll have some enormous challenges -- among them trying to control costs in the Medicaid program, one of the biggest-ticket items in the state budget, and answering questions about how a health insurance exchange mandated under the Affordable Care Act will operate.
"She's got only big stuff on her plate," said Joan Benso, president and CEO of PA Partnerships for Children, a nonpartisan child advocacy organization.
Ms. Mackereth gets largely positive reviews from social services professionals who know her.
"I think she's a great choice. She is laser-focused on what is the best choice for the clients of the agency she is leading," Ms. Benso said. "[She's an] inclusive leader who is willing to hear people's points of view, even when she disagrees with us."
"We have been very pleased with her during her acting secretary period," said Sam Milkes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network. "She has very much reached out and emphasized the need for open and improved communication."
And her time as a human services worker has won her credibility with the union that represents 5,000 welfare case workers in county assistance offices across Pennsylvania.
"She actually came out of our bargaining unit, so she does have some [real-world] experience," said Kathy Jellison, president of Service Employees International Union Local 668.
Ms. Mackereth, 55, has also worked in law enforcement in the York County District Attorney's Office, aiding crime victims and working on child-abuse programs. She has held public office both as mayor of the York County borough of Spring Grove and as a state representative for eight years. She has been executive director of the York County Human Services Department and deputy secretary of the Office of Children, Youth and Families in the state's DPW. She was named acting secretary in February.
"I've done it at every level," Ms. Mackereth said. "I was the worker. I was the supervisor. I was an administrator. I oversaw all aspects of the human services. I worked for a health care system, so that's the health care piece. And I was a state rep serving on committees that made all the policies and laws for eight years. ... My history, I think, is perfect for the responsibilities I'm asked to provide."
Her predecessor in the position, Gary Alexander, was more controversial.
Said Bob Nelkin, president of United Way of Allegheny County: "[The ideal DPW secretary] is somebody that believes in the programs and services of the department. And not that it's full of waste, fraud and abuse. We'd like to see a secretary who will fight for consumers -- the abused child, the child waiting for adoption, the people with disabilities, et cetera. We need someone to fight for them."
Mr. Alexander, he said, "didn't meet the ideal. He didn't believe in these programs and services. He didn't fight for the consumer. It was all about mindless budget cutting."
"She's clearly a breath of fresh air [compared with Mr. Alexander]," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia. Mr. Hughes has been among the biggest proponents of a potential expansion of the Medicaid program, which the DPW so far has not agreed to, citing uncertainties about future costs.
"We differ in that area, but so far, she has been open, been listening," said Mr. Hughes.