CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill that would dissolve West Virginia’s ailing Department of Health and Human Resources and separate it into three new departments passed the House overwhelmingly Tuesday after lawmakers voiced concerns about abuse and neglect allegations facing the state’s largest government agency.
Before voting in support, Republican Del. Larry Kump called the current structure of West Virginia’s largest state agency “a systemic hot mess.”
“I’m not completely persuaded that separating it into three separate agencies is a fix, but I’m persuaded that it is worth a try,” Kump said.
The bill to dissolve the Department of Health and Human Resources at the start of next year comes after the agency has faced repeated allegations of abuse and mistreatment of the state’s most vulnerable residents in its care. The department is the largest in the state and runs West Virginia’s foster care system, state-run psychiatric facilities and many other offices and programs.
House Health Chair Republican Del. Amy Summers repeated some examples of allegations against the department before Tuesday’s vote. One story was about a mother in Greenbrier County dealing with mental health issues who had received state services, having been involved with the foster care system for most of her life. Child Protective Services received a report about abuse and neglect in Oreanna Myers’ home, but it was never investigated. She killed herself, her three children and two step children in late 2020.
“The list goes on and on,” Summers said.
The House’s vote to pass the agency separation bill comes just under a year after Republican Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a proposal passed by lawmakers that would have split the agency in two parts, saying he first wanted a review of its “issues, bottlenecks, and inefficiencies.”
In November, a consulting firm hired by Justice to review West Virginia’s health agency concluded the department should not be split as lawmakers wanted.
The McChrystal Group of Alexandria, Virginia, was hired to review the Department of Health and Human Resources. The report said the current configuration “is not an option” but that splitting the agency would “divert time, funding, and leadership’s focus away from serving West Virginians.”
It’s unclear how lawmakers will get support from Justice to separate the department, or whether they have enough votes to override a potential veto.
The state Senate voted to bypass legislative rules to speedily approve a similar proposal on the first day of the legislative session last month. The House designed its own version, which will now go before the Senate.
Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin said Tuesday he hopes separating the department will clear up some of the “red tape” so the government can “take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.”
“This bill is a is a big first step — it’s just the first step,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of work to do.”
Under the bill, the agency would be separated into three separate departments: Health, Health Facilities and Human Services. The current department has been one agency since 1989.
Summers said the current setup of the department is too large to manage in a crisis. Separating the department into three will also increase transparency in the budget process, she said. The DHHR’s $7.6 billion budget currently accounts for around 40% of annual state spending.
Additionally, the department’s current composition leads to “organizational conflicts of interest” between providers of foster care and psychiatric services and those tasked with regulating and investigating them, Summers said.
The bill dictates that the three departments would still maintain an office of shared services containing 427 employees who would be responsible for compiling quarterly reports on the efficiency of the new agencies. The reports would be presented to the legislative oversight commission on health and human resources.
Changes would also be made to the Office of the Inspector General to ensure “greater independence,” Summers said. The Inspector General would be able to independently investigate the state and provide recommendations for changes to the Legislature. Previously, the office could not interact with the Legislature, Summers said.
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