Bud­get boost of­fers some re­lief for DHS

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION -

LIKE sev­eral state agency heads, Depart­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices Di­rec­tor Ed Lake is look­ing to the new fis­cal year with some op­ti­mism. Credit goes to a boost in his bud­get, af­ter sev­eral dif­fi­cult years.

The Leg­is­la­ture ap­pro­pri­ated DHS $729.4 mil­lion for fis­cal 2019, which be­gins July 1. That’s an in­crease of $34 mil­lion over the cur­rent fis­cal year and, with an ex­pected in­crease of about $18 mil­lion in fed­eral Med­i­caid match­ing dol­lars, will make DHS a bit more whole than it’s been.

“We feel like we’ve climbed out of the hole, and it was a pretty deep hole,” Lake said in an in­ter­view last week.

A boost in Med­i­caid match­ing funds will pro­vide a real boost. The match is ad­justed each year based on a three-year rolling av­er­age of each state’s eco­nomic growth. As luck would have it, the for­mula re­sulted in match­ing funds be­ing cut in Ok­la­homa as the state’s econ­omy weak­ened, be­cause the three-year av­er­age had re­flected the bet­ter days in the en­ergy sec­tor.

As a con­se­quence, Lake says, DHS in re­cent years had to find a way to cover about $25 mil­lion in costs that would have been cov­ered by Med­i­caid. Be­fore this fis­cal year, money was gleaned by stream­lin­ing, re­duc­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive costs, find­ing en­ergy ef­fi­cien­cies and other belt-tight­en­ing. This year, though, cuts took a toll on some pro­grams and ser­vices.

As an ex­am­ple, DHS re­duced fos­ter care and adop­tion pay­ments by 5 per­cent in 2017. This year, it will be able to re­store those cuts.

The larger ap­pro­pri­a­tion means the agency will not have to im­ple­ment an­other freeze in en­roll­ments for child care sub­si­dies for low-in­come work­ing fam­i­lies. DHS had to stop en­roll­ments a year ago.

The agency plans to in­crease by 7 per­cent its provider rates in the Ad­van­tage Med­i­caid waiver pro­gram for di­rect care, state plan per­sonal care and case man­age­ment. Provider rates in all De­vel­op­men­tal Dis­abil­i­ties Ser­vices Med­i­caid waiver pro­grams and state-funded ser­vices will be in­creased by 7 per­cent; those rates had been cut in 2015.

Lake notes that the state has made gains in its adop­tion pro­gram, which is great. But as adop­tions have in­creased, so has the bill for DHS — he’s had to take about $4.75 mil­lion from other ar­eas to cover the costs. This year’s ap­pro­pri­a­tion will ease that bur­den.

About $8 mil­lion of the $34 mil­lion will be used to cover em­ployee pay raises that were ap­proved for all state em­ploy­ees. DHS also will in­crease salaries for child wel­fare spe­cial­ists to ful­fill obli­ga­tions of the Pin­na­cle Plan, which is in its fifth year. That re­form plan stemmed from the state’s set­tle­ment of a clas­s­ac­tion law­suit over fos­ter care.

This year’s fund­ing boost doesn’t re­place the to­tal amount DHS lost in the pre­vi­ous years. Many va­can­cies will re­main open and some pro­grams will re­main idle, Lake says, but the chal­lenges don’t ap­pear quite so daunt­ing. That’s a wel­come change for the agency tasked with the vi­tal work of tend­ing to Ok­la­homa’s most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren and el­derly.

Ed Lake

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