WILKES-BARRE — State Sen. Lisa Baker said Monday she will consider Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to consolidate four state departments, but she stressed there are still many unknowns.
Wolf announced a plan to create a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in his 2017-2018 budget, which would merge the Departments of Aging; Health; Human Services; and Drug and Alcohol Programs.
Baker, R-Lehman Township, said the goals of streamlining bureaucracy, improving service delivery, and saving money are “certainly appealing” to legislators and taxpayers.
“So the initial reaction to Gov. Wolf’s proposal to merge the departments has been cautiously receptive,” Baker said.
But she said a Senate budget hearing with the four departments last week was revealing mostly in how much is not known and how much work remains in filling in the details. She said given the number of programs, employees, and dollars involved, the plan is an immensely complicated undertaking, with an incredibly short time frame for the transition.
“Specifics are requisite for legislative review and action,” Baker said. “Consolidation can optimistically be seen as combining and aligning strengths, but it can skeptically be seen as throwing problems and weaknesses into a common pot and hoping for a better mix of results.”
Baker said a quick look at the proposal ascertained that much of the projected savings could be accomplished irrespective of the merger. And she said efficiency has to be the foremost consideration.
“If coordination helps in combating the opioid crisis, for example, then that would be a large positive,” she said.
‘Do not guarantee’
One of the more difficult transitions, Baker noted, is closing the state health centers and establishing replacement partnerships with local agencies. She said this is going to be particularly challenging in rural parts of the state, where access to health care is a long-running concern.
“If the duplication in operations is enough to reduce staffing by the projected 522 positions, that is an attractive feature in tight funding times,” Baker said. “But here again, the standard approaches to workforce reduction do not generally guarantee the right people depart. State government cannot afford to have its most capable and experienced people leave as this process unfolds.”
Baker said in terms of some of the more technical aspects, squaring away overlapping contracts seems a complex and time-consuming undertaking.
She also said changes of this dimension are susceptible to lawsuits from those who prefer the status quo or those who feel disadvantaged by the transition.
“So there will presumably have to be assurances offered the various stakeholders to prevent litigation that could disrupt the timetable or whittle the savings,” Baker said.
Governor’s office responds
J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s press secretary, said the governor appreciates Baker’s “thoughtful response” to his proposal. Abbott said the governor firmly believes that consolidating the four departments will improve service delivery, while also creating cost efficiency.
“For seniors and their families, this will create a singular point of contact for services to reduce complexity,” Abbott said. “The proposal will also ensure seamless and more direct delivery of the many services and programs for those suffering from addiction.”
Abbott said the Wolf Administration looks forward to working with Baker and her colleagues to find even more areas where services can be improved for seniors, kids, people with disabilities and all those who will be served by a unified agency.
Public hearings ahead
Baker said somewhere along the line, the administration will have to preview the reconstituted management team for what she called “this sprawling enterprise.”
Because the programs run under these four departments are among the most crucial in state government, Baker said the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will be holding public hearings across the state in the coming weeks. The views of service providers and recipients are indispensable to assessing how workable this proposal will be, she noted.
“Even with the many unknowns attaching to this plan, the larger potential disruption involves the federal effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act,” Baker said. “That is a wild card state officials do not control.”
Baker said the good news for citizens is that state government, compelled by serious fiscal difficulties, is taking a hard look at doing things differently. However, she said this discussion has a way to go before a vote is taken.
“It is simply too early to predict what the full plan will look like, how practical it will be, and how much difficulty will be encountered in implementing it.”
Wolf: Seniors will benefit
When announcing the consolidation plan, Wolf said one group that will benefit is seniors. Currently, Wolf said older Pennsylvanians have to work through multiple agencies for the health and human services they need.
According to information provided by the governor’s office:
• Older Pennsylvanians would have one point of service with the Department of Health and Human Services. This will result in less confusion and easier access as constituents and their families seek services.
• Seniors will not see any cuts to their programs due to the creation of this new department, and it will have no impact on how lottery money is used to support senior initiatives.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.comments powered by Disqus