No deal in sight for DHS

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It appears unlikely lawmakers will reach a swift compromise on reauthorizing the Department of Human Services, even though there are only a few weeks left in the session.

Bills to reauthorize the agency have passed the House and Senate. At issue is a polarizing provision in the Senate plan to remove the agency’s 3,200 employees from the oversight of the state Personnel Board.

Lifting the civil service protection would allow DHS Executive Director Don Taylor to reorganize the agency through job elimination and reassignments without giving employees due process hearings. Taylor said some due process proceedings take years to be resolved.

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DHS handles adoptions, foster care, child support, food stamps and services for the aging. The agency also oversees the state’s two training schools for youthful offenders and other programs for adolescent offenders.

The agency’s budget request for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is 22 percent more than the current year.

At a time when DHS is working miracles to do its job with an already limited number of social workers, removing such workers from civil service protection would be a big mistake, Matilda Stephens said.

Stephens is executive director of the Sunshine Shelter, a short-term home for abused and neglected children. The agency gets its referrals from DHS and, as a result, works closely with the department’s social workers.

&uot;I admire the job they do, Š but the fact is that these social workers, because they have so many positions open, are handling way more cases than they need to,&uot; Stephens said.

Not being able to offer the job security that comes with civil service protection would probably make it harder to attract new social workers or retain current ones, she said.

&uot;And having fewer social workers, in the long run, ends up affecting the people you’re trying to help &045; the children,&uot; she said.

Sister Donna Gunn of Catholic Charities in Jackson said her organization is also concerned the change could open the door to social workers being fired.

Gunn said lawmakers are aware of the problem because &uot;many of them live in counties where there are not enough social workers to investigate the allegations of abuse and neglect.&uot;

The House reauthorization bill does not include the civil service provision, and leaders in that chamber are adamantly opposed to it.

&uot;That dog will not hunt under any circumstances. We are not, in the House, going to turn our backs on the rights of state workers to be protected in their jobs,&uot; said House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.

Senate Public Health Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said reorganizing DHS could save 5 percent of the agency’s budget.

&uot;That’s an important provision because in these difficult budget times we need to do everything we can to save money in state government,&uot; Nunnelee said.

The discourse mirrors that of the 2004 Legislature when lawmakers, unable to reach agreement, allowed DHS to expire.

Last session, Gov. Haley Barbour was pushing lawmakers to give him control of the agency by removing civil service protection. The Senate approved. The House balked.

DHS has operated under a court order since last summer, and Holland said the agency may continue to do so for a while.

&uot;I will not accept that bill under any circumstances, and Sen. Nunnelee knew that when he sent it to me,&uot; Holland said.

Nunnelee said lawmakers have until March 28 to file conference reports detailing a compromise. The session is scheduled to end April 3.

DHS has 306 full-time social workers and 58 vacancies. Taylor said the agency faces a lawsuit because of the shortage.

&uot;It would be incredibly stupid to voluntarily diminish your capacity in an area where you are already experiencing a shortfall of personnel,&uot; he said.

Taylor was critical of the past performance of other areas, including the child support enforcement division. The federal government levied a $580,000 sanction in 2004 because Mississippi failed to increase the number of paternity cases resolved between Oct. 1, 2002, and Sept. 30, 2003.

Taylor said the agency overspent child care money two consecutive years. The overspending resulted in $6 million in lost federal child care funds in 2002, he said.

Taylor said those are the areas he would target for reorganization.

&uot;If you look at people in the past, because their ineptitude has cost us funding, you’re probably talking about a few positions,&uot; Taylor said.

It is unclear when lawmakers will begin earnest talks on a DHS compromise. Lawmakers had been locked in talks to resolve Medicaid’s $268 million deficit. During a weekend special session, lawmakers approved a plan to take $240 million from the health care trust fund.

Medicaid, which serves 780,000 elderly, disabled and poor Mississippians, was expected to have about $4 million on hand Monday morning, said Medicaid Executive Director Warren Jones.

The House and Senate were working on plans over the weekend to address Medicaid’s deficit during an unprecedented special session.

The bills are Senate Bill 2009 and House Bill 698.