The Senate Finance Committee heard the commissioner of Human Services and his staff present the department’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2014 Thursday at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Commissioner Christopher Finch said the budget request, without the Medical Assistant Program/Medicaid function transferred from the Health Department, is “about even” with funding for the last two years.
DHS employs 832 staff members, without including MAP positions, down from 1,020 employees at the beginning of 2009.
“This year, MAP is officially part of the DHS General Fund budget and additional match money has been placed in both the General Fund and Miscellaneous budgets to take advantage of the federal Medicaid funds made available under the Affordable Care Act. Also this fiscal year, the SCSEP (Senior Community Service Employment Program) was moved from the Department of Labor to Human Services so the federal and local match funds are reflected in DHS’s budget,” Finch said.
The Human Services budget requested $77,177,925 in local funds. Finch said $69,079,194 in federal funds are expected and $57 million for SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps). Finch added that a record 32,000 residents have received SNAP benefits and an increase of $4 million is anticipated next year.
The DHS request from the General Fund is almost $65 million, including funding for MAP/Medicaid. From the Miscellaneous Budget, $9.15 million is being requested, including $6 million to match Medicaid funding and $1 million for the Energy Crisis Assistance Program. ECAP helps senior citizens and persons with disabilities pay utility bills.
The Miscellaneous funds would also cover $1.1 million for early childhood education, nursing home beds and the Cancer Care program.
Finch said other funding sources for the department include $1.7 million from the Lottery for the Pharmaceutical Assistance Fund and $1 million from the Crisis Intervention Fund that is re-granted to nonprofit organizations. There is also $364,225 received from the Home for the Aged Revolving Fund – fees from nursing home residents that are used within nursing homes.
The V.I. General Fund pays salaries for 443 employees and federal funding covers 423 staff members. Finch said personnel costs account for 34 percent of the requested appropriation.
The General Fund appropriation will support 13 DHS divisions and more than 65 programs and services. Forty percent of the request, almost $27 million, covers residential care provided by DHS, including support for children and the elderly, on-island and care contracted off-island.
Finch talked about the effects of sequestration and the federal domestic and defense budget cuts imposed last year.
“Sequestration spared the major financial aid programs such as SNAP and Medicaid but took a harsh toll on smaller social services,” Finch said.
DHS is losing almost $1 million in cuts, more than half a million cut from early childhood programs. The Head Start budget will be reduced by $412, 292 and senior programs will be cut another quarter-million dollars, he said.
There are 894 low income 3- and 4-year-olds throughout the territory who are served by Head Start and another 700 are on the waiting list, according to Finch.
Last year the territory’s Head Start program fought to keep the program and, while it continues, the five-year funding grant was reduced $400,000 by the sequester.
“We approached the sequester cuts by deciding not to close any classrooms, although that was an allowable strategy suggested by the federal office. We knew we could not make up the sequester cut with local funding. Based on consultation with our federal monitor, we are re-organizing and reducing the staffing,” Finch said.
Head Start is providing $2.5 million to build a new 10-classroom center in Frederiksted. The total cost will be about $4 million and Finch told senators they are looking for the additional funds.
Integrating MAP/Medicaid into the department takes on new importance since Gov. John deJongh, Jr. opted to expand Medicaid instead of creating a Health Insurance Exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Finch explained how the program will add eventually some 3,000 residents, including children and pregnant women.
“As we move people from uncompensated care to Medicaid, we move their health care from being paid 100 percent by the V.I. Government to the federal government picking up 55 percent of the costs. This helps the hospital, the clinics and everyone,” Finch said.
Currently the Gov. Juan Luis Hospital and Medical Center alone incurs more than $29 million annually in uncompensated care – patients who don’t have insurance and don’t pay their hospital bills.
Early on in his testimony, Finch asked for a lump sum budget, which Sen. Clarence Payne said he supports.
“I will advocate very strongly when the time comes. I find the Legislature has been very compassionate,” he said.
Senators asked questions about senior and early childhood programs, homeless housing and education for incarcerated youth. Finch told Sen. Myron Jackson that the territory has around 200 long-term care beds for seniors when 700 is the preferred ration for more than 14,000 seniors in the Virgin Islands.
On St. Croix, youth at the Youth Correctional Facility are sent to school, and on St Thomas, homework and assignments are provided by teachers, Finch said in response to questioning.
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson asked about the utility bills paid for seniors and disabled persons through the ECAP program. Finch said the average bill is $170 and ECAP pays $100 every other month with the current funding.
The commissioner thanked the Senate for more than $300,000 that was appropriated for the ECAP program on Wednesday.
More than one legislator commended Finch and Human Services on their work, including Sen. Donald Cole, who said he is concerned about developing more early childhood programs.
“This work doesn’t happen because of the five of us here but the 827 who are working while we are sitting here. We just want to say, ‘God bless you,’” Finch said at the end of the hearing.
Attending the session were committee members Nelson, Payne, Jackson, Cole and Sens. Clifford Graham, chair, and Nereida Rivera O’Reilly. Member Judi Fricks-Buckley was absent.