State budget: Weak economy adds challenges for social agencies

By WALTER C. JONES
Morris News Service
ATLANTA  – Georgia’s tepid recovery from the last recession makes it harder to provide social services, agency directors told legislative budget writers Thursday.
The heads of the state’s welfare and health agencies outlined what Gov. Nathan Deal is recommending in their budget for the rest of this fiscal year and the next. Their presentations were in the last of three days of hearings by the joint House and Senate appropriations committees.
The cost of healthcare continues to rise while persistence joblessness adds to the number of people qualified to enroll in the benefit programs, they said.
“That makes us Ground Zero for some of these budget challenges,” said Community Health Commissioner David Cook.
The Medicaid program he oversees is seeking a $375 million cash infusion in the current year to cover a projected operating deficit and $256 million in the fiscal year that begins in July to cover enrollment growth. State employees and teachers will pay higher premiums for their own health insurance, too.
The weak economy is dampening the state’s tax collections, prompting Deal to order every agency – including Cook’s and the other social-service agencies – to trim 3 percent of their current year’s spending and to carry it over into next year.

"Our thought and our hope is that as the economy gets better this will flat line,” said Human Service Commissioner Clyde Reese.

He detailed to the legislators the number of job cuts at the Department of Human Services which oversees welfare programs. He expressed concern that his social workers would burn out, estimating that the 15-20 percent annual turnover would be worse if there were more jobs available in the private sector.

Technology can take over for workers being laid off in the area checking eligibility of those applying for the aid programs to low-income families. He said he is doing that so that he won’t make major cuts to those overseeing cases of child neglect and abuse.

“On the child-welfare side, people make a difference. You can't send a computer out to make a family visit,” he said.

The committees will begin next week to decide which of Deal’s recommendations to accept and which to change.

Democrats on the committee issued a statement after the hearing calling for the governor to change his mind and accept federal funds to cover the expansion of Medicaid, the state/ federal insurance program for the poor. He has said the cost to state taxpayers would be too high.

"It is unconscionable that, as human beings, we must debate the cost-benefit analysis of a comprehensive health care system for our citizens, our sick, and our elderly when we have the opportunity to accept federal Medicaid expansion money and increase health care coverage for Georgians," said Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta, whip of the Senate Democratic Caucus.



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