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House votes to divide DHHR into three agencies

A proposal to split West Virginia’s largest agency, DHHR, into three has passed the full House of Delegates.

The three would be the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health Facilities.

Delegates voted 95-3 in favor of the change.

“The current Department of Health and Human Resources is a systemic, hot mess,” said Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.

“I recognize that and certainly welcome reform. I am not completely persuaded that separating it into three separate agencies is a fix. But I am persuaded it is worth a try. I only hope this is not the last step, but a first step, to improving these services.”

Lawmakers have been considering the change for months. The state Senate passed a very similar bill on the first day of the regular legislative session, but there are some differences that arose during the House’s consideration. So, the bill now goes to the Senate.

“The Senate and the House have worked on this bill, from the beginning, together,” House Health Chair Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

“The bills started out almost identical. What we did on the House side, though, is we sent the bill through two different committees. We got input from the executive. We got input from people who use the services, and we changed the bill from all of that input to the product we are putting on the floor today.”

House Bill 2006 does some rearranging of departments that have been within DHHR. And the bill in the House empowers the Office of Inspector General in the newly established health department. Administrative offices, such as payroll, continue to be shared.

Last year, a bipartisan set of West Virginia lawmakers said experience had taught them the state’s largest agency is just too unwieldy to get a handle on its operations or finances. The total annual budget for the Department of Health and Human Resources is $7.5 billion to handle a wide range of health and social services issues.

Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a bill that would have divided the agency, saying a restructuring needs a longer, more careful examination. The governor called for a top-to-bottom review. The result was a $1 million consultant’s report that concluded splitting the agency would be disruptive but instead recommended the empowerment of a stronger set of deputy secretaries.

This year, lawmakers are back with a different restructuring proposal that would divide DHHR into the three agencies.

“The McChrystal report told us that DHHR requires bold organizational change, and so we have decided that the best mechanism for us as a 60-day, part-time legislature trying to oversee such a massive department is to break it into pieces that are more manageable and more transparent for us to examine,” Summers said.

Summers addressed the question of whether three agencies could result in additional costs to the state overall. She described an office of shared administration established under the bill to provide services to the three departments. That office is meant to implement a plan for efficient and shared administrative services, reporting back to the Legislature by mid-2024.

“We also are not going to grow our budget through the Finance Committee in that area. They have 24% vacancy rates. They can use positions — not frontline workers, but bureaucratic upper level positions — they can collapse those that are not filled right now for the money they need to find if they need to increase in other areas,” she said.

On the House floor, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, agreed the changes are necessary to get a handle on the agency. He highlighted a current problem with processing support payments to foster families.

“Hopefully it clears up some of this red tape so government can do the simple job it’s supposed to do — the most important thing to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves,” Pushkin said.
Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said all the work toward the bill has been time well spent.

“I don’t think any one of us are happy with the way DHHR has been functioning,” said Rohrbach, the deputy House speaker. “It’s one of the number one complaints we all hear from our constituents.”

In the state Senate on Tuesday, members passed a bill that would expand the powers of West Virginia’s foster care ombudsman.

The bill passed in the Senate 34-0. It already passed the House of Delegates, but there were a few changes in the Senate. So, the House will still need to reconcile those.

The ombudsman position was created in 2019 to support the needs of the many West Virginia families taking in children. The ombudsman is Pamela M. Woodman-Kaehler.

HB 3061 permits the ombudsman to examine issues within the child welfare system from intake to when the child ages out.

The ombudsman’s authority is expanded to also cover juvenile victims of allegations of abuse or neglect, a child sustaining a critical incident or children in the juvenile justice system. Some of those situations would allow for investigation prior to the child officially entering the foster care system.

The bill adds language to protect the ombudsman from being compelled to testify or produce evidence in a proceeding on investigations. And the bill prohibits other state agencies or officials from preventing the release of reports by the ombudsman.