Program comes with potential service cuts
By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — A plan to streamline the distribution of grant money for health services in Pennsylvania makes sense to some officials as a step toward efficiency, but others believe the plan will harm the efforts of service providers for the social safety net.
Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley announced Tuesday that the Corbett administration and officials from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania agreed on how to implement the Human Services Development Fund. CCAP is a nonprofit, bipartisan organization representing counties statewide.
Officials aim to roll out the program as soon as July 1.
As proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett in this year's budget, the block grant program would funnel $754.7 million from seven different welfare programs — including mental health services, behavioral health services and homeless assistance — into one grant. This concept, opponents say, could harm those who are most vulnerable by redirecting funds they need.
In addition, the state stands to save $168.4 million with proposed 20 percent cuts to overall grant funding. The administration, legislators and county officials are still negotiating for the actual amount saved, said Cawley.
“Families with an autistic child, or a person struggling with an addiction, we need to be there for them,” Cawley said Tuesday during a press conference at the statehouse. “But that harsh reality is coupled with yet another harsh reality, and it is simply this — we can no longer spend money we don’t have. We’re still recovering from this recession.”
The block grant will let counties distribute money where they need it most, Cawley said.
“The current system is not very flexible at all, and it’s got a lot of rigid rules,” he said. “It forces counties to answer to multiple masters and it forces clients to separate services, rather than a unified, client-based approach.”
Berks County Commissioner Christian Leinbech, vice president of CCAP, referred to Reading as an example of how a municipality would benefit from the grant program. The distressed city will have different needs than rural Tioga County, Leinbech said.
Under the current system, counties must track and report spending in different categories. The block grant would remove those barriers, and let counties set their own priorities on human services spending.
“You could look at almost any of the last several years and find one category with a surplus and another category where we’re out of money,” Leinbech said.
Although legislation for the program is not available, counties can enter the program July 1 or have the program phased in over two years.
The program would include rates of funding specific areas for the first several years, but after that period, counties use the funding as they see fit.
Despite the program’s proposed July 1 start date, state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo
, wants to stop the block grant. He is supporting legislation on this issue, which the state House could address later this week.
While speaking to rallying groups outside the Capitol, DiGirolamo said the block grant program hurts those who are most vulnerable, and it’s too soon to support something with so few details.
“Let’s try a pilot program. I think that’s fair and that’s reasonable and that’s responsible. Not full speed ahead into this block grant,” he said.
Human service providers are finding consolidating funding means cuts in funding.
Hank Lipinski, director of development for Allegheny Family Network, said his organization of 28 employees helps families with children with behavioral health issues.
Allegheny County told his organization that it would have to cut its $2 million annual operating budget by 20 percent under the block grant program.
Lipinski said the organization may cut its staff to offset the lost funding, resulting in fewer families who have children with special needs receiving help. Without assistance, families may have the child taken away from them, he said.
“The irony of the cutback thing is it’s going to increase costs," Lipinski said.
Christine Michaels, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the block grant program will pit special needs advocates against each other as they compete for the same funding.
To Michaels, the block grants mean less funding for services like treatment, housing support, drop-in facilities and psychiatric rehabilitation. Michaels added that the announcement blindsided organizations.
“We were never involved at all. There was no public input in any of this,” she said. “The county commissioners weren’t communicating.”