State Won’t Pull its Weight

State Won’t Pull its Weight

Legislators say state must increase human services funding.

When three representatives to the state legislature, all Democrats, met with representatives from a plethora of human services organizations in the area, one consensus opinion was expressed again and again: the state is not doing enough to fund human services.

On Tuesday, Oct. 3, Delegates David Englin (D-45) and Kristen Amundson (D-44) and State Senator Toddy Puller (D-36) met with the Route 1 Task Force for Human Services to discuss human services financing in the General Assembly.

The rhetoric grew heated early, after Amundsen brought up the decision on June 28 to kill a budget amendment that would have provided Fairfax County with $6 million to offset federal cuts to childcare funding. The money was meant to keep 1,900 poor children in subsidized childcare while their parents worked. Republican delegates, including four from Fairfax, voted the amendment down. Amundsen described the vote as “a decision that is absolutely impossible to justify.”

Verdia Heywood, the county Deputy Executive for Human Services, said the county would not be cutting any children from its daycare program, but it would be unable to add any of the 2,600 people on the waiting list. He said human services workers in the county labored to build a coalition to provide a quality Head Start program, and now that program is at risk. “We’ve spent 25 years or so building up that system and a single decision can unravel in large part 25 years worth of work.”

“I’m just damn mad,” said Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland. “I can’t believe that they did that. You can’t do that to the population that needs it the most.” He focused on the difficulties the decision would create for parents trying to get off welfare. “You encourage people to be self-sufficient and get a job and these folks can’t do it without help.”

Amundsen encouraged task force members to write the governor and ask him to include the funding in the budget amendments he will present to the legislature in December. She said members should speak to their friends, neighbors and churches about writing their representatives. “If this isn’t a place where faith communities can weigh in on caring for the most vulnerable children in our society than I don’t know where faith communities can weigh in.” But even if it is passed, the funding won’t come into effect until July.

“This is not a story with a happy ending,” Amundsen said. “I am just really sad. And I think we should just all be sad.”

THE STRONG RESPONSE to discussion of the childcare cuts was motivated in part by a general frustration with what many people present described as the state’s inadequate funding for human services. Englin said he had submitted an amendment to bring the state’s payments to foster parents up to the national average. This would have raised the money paid to foster parents each month from about $350 to more than $400. The amendment was rejected in the same session that legislators voted to eliminate the estate tax, a move that will cost the state tens of millions of dollars. But Englin said he had expected the defeat and was undeterred. “Those of us who advocate on these issues, we need to keep hammering away and asking questions about where our priorities lie.”

Puller announced she had just learned she’d been named by the governor to his Commission on Health Reform. This commission will include members from the public and private sectors to recommend policies for strengthening the state’s healthcare. Puller is already a member of the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care. “We must look at innovative ways to improve the delivery of quality, affordable, healthcare to all Virginians,” Senator Puller stated in a subsequent news release.

ALSO AT THE MEETING, Haywood revealed the mandate for a new blue ribbon commission established by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to examine the mental health services provided by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. The Beeman Commission, whose members have yet to be named, will be asked to create a “vision” for the county’s mental health system, evaluate the system’s current situation and create a road map and timetable for transforming it.

“The Board [of Supervisors] decided it’s time to take a fresh look at our whole system of mental health services,” Haywood explained. He said the commission will be appointed by Oct. 23, begin work in January, present an interim report in June and a final report at the end of the summer. But it will be 2009 before any implementation begins. He added that mental health issues and affordable housing are the county’s two human services “mega-priorities.”

“These are times that are both very exciting and very challenging,” said Fairfax-Falls Church CSB executive director James Thur. He said tracking the demand for psychiatric beds is a top priority, especially since there are very few left in the county. Not only are public spaces for psychiatric patients at a premium, but the county’s ability to rent them from the private sector is also maxing out. “They can’t sell us a bed that doesn’t exist,” he said.

Thur presented the state representatives with four budget priorities agreed upon by five regional CSB’s in northern Virginia. One asked for $2.8 million to expand mental health care in the private sector. Another $2.35 million was requested to establish a pilot project for geriatric care to bring part-time care workers into people’s homes as a cheaper alternative to nursing homes. They requested another $2.1 million to build more group homes to which state psychiatric hospitals could release patients and free up their beds. The final request would increase the Medicaid payments for daily support services (such as a nurse for the disabled) to match the increased rates paid for other Medicaid services in high-cost northern Virginia.

“I think they’re pretty modest budget requests. They serve an awful lot of people for not a lot of money,” Amundsen said, adding that she will write a letter to the governor supporting them. But she said she’s afraid a slowing economy will make it difficult to pass them in a house controlled by Republicans. “I think it’s going to be a tougher budget year.”

“The state is inadequate,” flatly stated Dr. Nooreddin Mirmirani, the director of Inova Mount Vernon’s Psychiatric Care Unit. “They’re not meeting their responsibility.” He suggested the county should “handle the bull by the horns” and pick up the slack left by the state.

“I don’t think we do what we need to do in terms of human services,” Amundsen said of the General Assembly.