CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill with major changes to the overloaded foster care system, but not without many statements of concern.
The bill passed 33-1, with Senator Richard Lindsay voting against it. It will go back to the House of Delegates, where it originated, because changes were made in Senate committees.
Senators made a series of speeches over the course of an hour about whether the bill will help or hurt children who should be served by the foster care system.
“So even though this isn’t something I feel real comfortable with, it’s something I think I’m going to have to support,” said Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone, who is a doctor.
“I think the children will be in a better-managed situation, and at the end of the day we’ll be able to monitor things really closely. I think we have to do something. I think this bill has been massaged to the best degree possible.”
The number of children in West Virginia’s foster care system has grown in correlation with the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the state. The Department of Health and Human Resources has reported about 7,000 children are now in foster care, kinship care or custody of the state.
“This might have been the most important bill that came through health this session. It’s certainly one of the top two or three bills to come through the Senate,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, who is also a doctor.
The bill creates a state foster care ombudsman. It extends the time foster care certification is authorized. It requires an annual home safety assessment. It prohibits the termination of parental rights when the parent is participating in a medically assisted treatment program.
And it also seeks to reduce the number of children placed in out-of-state treatment facilities, a longstanding issue for West Virginia’s system.
The most controversial aspect of the legislation, though, would open up the foster care population to a managed care organization.
That was the aspect that drew senators’ attention as they discussed the bill on Friday, the 59th day of the regular legislative session.
“I don’t see how we can interject profit into this process and do better for kids,” said Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell.
The Department of Health and Human Resources has a $225 million contract ready to bid for a managed care company to oversee the health needs of those in the foster care system. The agency has said that would happen whether the related legislation passes or not.
Advocates for managed care contend it will provide a more consistent approach to healthcare for foster children. Vaccination and dental records, for example, may be less likely to fall through the cracks if children are moved from out-of-state care back to in-state care.
“Everyone wants these kids to be taken care of. These kids have it rough,” Maroney said. “The last thing I want to do is not take care of these kids. This is a first step in a process toward a fix.”