CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill that would dissolve West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources and separate it into three new departments is heading to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice, just under a year after he vetoed a different proposal to split up the ailing agency.
State senators voted in favor of the legislation overwhelmingly Wednesday with little discussion, just over a week after it was approved by House lawmakers.
The Republican governor addressed the bill during a briefing shortly after, but did not say whether he would sign it.
“When it makes its way to my desk, I will approach it in a positive way,” Justice 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 a slew of other offices and programs.
The Senate passed its own proposal to break the department into three during the first day of the 60-day legislative session January. House lawmakers decided to advance their own bill instead of taking up the Senate’s.
When the bill passed the House, Republican Health Chair Amy Summers repeated some examples of abuse and mismanagement allegations facing the department. 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 then.
Last year, 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.”
Under the bill headed to the governor, the agency would be separated into three separate departments: Health, Health Facilities and Human Services. The current department has been one agency since 1989.
Lawmakers have said the current setup of the department is too large to manage in a crisis and that separating the department into three will also increase transparency in the budget process. The DHHR’s $7.6 billion budget currently accounts for around 40% of annual state spending.
Additionally, they have said 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.
The bill dictates that the three departments would still maintain an office of shared services containing more than 400 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 a state advocate for foster kids and families to allow it to independently investigate the state and provide recommendations for changes to the Legislature. Previously, the office could not interact with the Legislature, according to lawmakers.
The state Senate also greenlit other bills Wednesday to help child protective services workers employed by DHHR. One bill would allow the state to implement a merit-based pay system for CPS workers and make decisions about where to send CPS workers based on county population and caseload.
The same bill would also require the state to create a back-up system for people to report allegations of abuse and neglect in case it’s 24/7 phone line goes down.
Another bill passed by the Senate would require that law enforcement serve child abuse and neglect petitions to families instead of CPS workers, who serve petitions in some counties now. Both proposals now head to the House for consideration.