Pa. House panel to discuss block grant distribution

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HARRISBURG -- Does a pilot program give county officials needed flexibility in how they spend dwindling human services dollars? Or does it pit the state's most vulnerable populations -- the homeless, the disabled, those with mental health issues or drug addiction -- against each other in a competition for funds?

Legislators will debate the issue this week when the House Human Services Committee meets to discuss legislation that could curtail a block grant pilot program that sought to give counties more flexibility by combining seven different types of human services funds. Competing legislation, favored by Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, would expand the block grant program.

"One of our concerns is that all of the line items involved are underfunded to start with ... you will end up with the human services being pitted against each other," said Deb Beck, president of the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.

Ms. Beck's trepidation is shared by Sue Walther, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Pennsylvania. Some 70 percent of the human services funds in question relate to behavioral health, and she fears the loss of dollars for vital services. In particular, Ms. Walther said she is concerned about the loss of funds earmarked for those impacted by the closing of state hospitals, such as Mayview, who in many cases have serious mental illnesses.

"There were promises made ... We are very concerned about those dollars in particular," she said.

Ms. Beck said the pilot program instituted by the state last year in 20 counties -- including Allegheny -- did not include any provisions to formally study or evaluate how changes in funding were carried out from county to county.

The effects of the block grant's much-touted flexibility haven't been felt yet in Allegheny County, said Marc Cherna, director of the county Department of Human Services. That's because the county's application into the program wasn't accepted until halfway through the fiscal year in January.

Mr. Cherna said the agency is taking steps now to draft a plan for the year beginning July 1 on how to best seek savings and end unneeded duplication in the $128.9 million in state and federal human services funds.

Last year, all 67 Pennsylvania counties took a 10 percent cut in human services funding. Twenty counties were allowed to participate in the block grant pilot program that merged different funding sources for mental health and intellectual disability community programs, child welfare special grants, homeless assistance, behavioral health services and drug and alcohol funds.

"We jumped at [the pilot], because we figured as long as we were losing money, we would have a better chance to minimize the damage," Mr. Cherna said.

Possible changes in the coming year could include increased treatment for drug and alcohol services (because that can save money in other areas), more services in the county jail and additional aid for homeless children and families, Mr. Cherna said. A draft plan discussing possible changes is available on the county's website.

In Westmoreland County, which was not part of the initial pilot program, commissioners are eager to see the block grant program expand. They would use it to eliminate any duplication and cut administrative costs, though Chuck Anderson, chairman of the board of commissioners, said he couldn't offer further specifics beyond that.

"Our goal is to be as efficient as possible to deliver those services to people who need it most," he said.

Mr. Corbett's administration, which put forth the block grant program last year, is seeking to expand it.

"When it was signed into law last June as a pilot program, 30 counties eagerly applied for the opportunity to participate; however, due to the legislation only 20 counties were permitted to do so" states a letter from Beverly Mackereth, acting secretary of the state's Department of Public Welfare. "Ten counties were left behind. This year, Gov. Corbett is seeking the opportunity for all counties to be able to choose whether or not to participate in this new innovative approach to human services."

Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, has proposed an amendment that would open up the block grant program to any county that wants to participate.

"In light of reduced state funding, this is more imperative than ever," said Mr. Baker.

However, his amendment is at odds with legislation put forth by human services committee chairman Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, which would essentially repeal the block grant program as it exists now, though it would allow counties to move money across line items at the end of a fiscal year.

There are important questions legislators should be asking at Tuesday's hearing, said Bob Nelkin, president of United Way of Allegheny County.

"The first question I would have about what happened last year is, was there any harm? And is there any documentation about what was cut? Were vital programs cut? Are there longer waiting lists? Will less preventative programs mean people went into more expensive care?"

While flexibility and local decision making are positive, Ken Regal, a director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh anti-hunger group, said he sees the block grant program as a cynical play by lawmakers to deeply cut services and send the blame down to the county level.

"What the state wanted to do was cut human services without being accused of cutting specific services for people," he said. "Affected people couldn't be up in arms and say, 'you're cutting my X.' ... It's this cover story about taking away the resources and sending the blame downstream."

Mr. Cherna said that's not how he sees it, and he and other local officials know their community needs better than the Legislature.

"I'd rather be the one with my community input, making those tough decisions ... Flexibility helps to minimize that damage," he said.

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Kate Giammarise: or 717-787-4254, or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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