Delegates started examining changes to how West Virginia’s foster care system is run, potentially opening the door to managed care contracts.
“Do you think this is going to be a better effect for the foster children, managed care?” asked Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion.
She was among delegates who asked questions about the bill during a meeting of the Senior, Children and Family Issues committee.
The committee passed the bill out on a voice vote, but it still has two more committees before being considered by the full House of Delegates. Up next is the Health and Human Resources Committee, followed by Judiciary.
West Virginia’s ongoing opioid addiction epidemic has put more strain on the foster care system. Last February, the state Department of Health and Human Resources reported there were 6,300 children in foster care.
West Virginia officials were concerned about being sued by the federal government over its handling of foster care.
In response to Longstreth’s question on Thursday, DHHR Deputy Director Jeremiah Samples said West Virginia needs the help of managed care organizations to manage its system.
“The coordination of care and making sure a child doesn’t fall through the cracks. It’s complicated, and it’s difficult and we need another set of eyes to see us through this process,” Samples said.
“We have to try new things to break this cycle. These are the most vulnerable individuals we serve. We need additional support and assistance.”
In addition to allowing for a managed care organization to supervise West Virginia foster care, the bill would make other changes as well.
It would create a three-year certification period for a foster home, unless a substantial change occurs with a required home safety assessment performed at least annually. That is meant to give foster families the relative certainty of three years.
Under the proposed changes, cosmetic damage to a home would not be a reason to remove a child from a foster home.
And the bill says parental rights may not be terminated on the sole basis that the parent is participating in a medically assisted treatment program for a substance abuse disorder.
There are also elements of the bill aimed at encouraging the placement of more children within West Virginia’s borders.
But the managed care aspects drew the most questions from delegates.
“I understand there is a need for more foster homes around our state,” said Delegate Terri Sypolt, R-Preston. “Do you feel this will help fill that need without compromising the safety of the children?”
Samples responded, “I do not believe anything in this legislation would compromise the safety of the children. If we felt this legislation would place children in harm’s way, we would be conveying that to you all.”
Sypolt responded, “Thank you. That’s what I wanted to hear.”
Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, described concern over unintended consequences.
“I’m worried about adding one more level of bureaucracy between the foster parent and the child. Arguably the foster parent is the most concerned of anybody for the foster child,” Graves said.
“Do you feel when you’re going to negotiate the contract, is it DHHR’s vision for the case manager to have requirements to consider the concerns of the foster parent? Assure me we are going to be improving the authority of the parent by adding this case manager.”
Samples described months of research and public input, leading to the recommendation that’s currently before legislators
“You have helped me make a decision to support this,” Graves said in response.
In the hallway after the meeting, Graves said she understands the need for change.
“I do think the public is aware we have a foster care crisis. I think we’re nearing the point of no return. This is an attempt by the state to have someone in place so the kids stop slipping through the cracks.
“I think the state is trying this to see if we can improve the level of care. And if we can manage our costs more efficiently we can reach more kids. We can take care of more kids.”
Graves said she would continue to watch the situation through the next steps of the legislative process, including after the changes would go into effect.
“Me, personally, I want to see where the rules are going to be. The rules are really going to be the test. There’s also going to be a trial period. So I’m going to follow up with foster parents. There’s actually several who have come to me with concerns.
“I’m going to be watching this like a hawk. Just because I’ve decided to sign off initially — I still have my doubts. I want to make sure this operates the way it was intended.”