Aug. 9, 2006–Developing a new Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Thomas, expanding the Pharmaceutical Assistance Program and weaning residents off of welfare programs were among the topics discussed during budget hearings Wednesday, as officials from the Department of Human Services testified in support of a $48.2 million General Fund budget request for fiscal year 2007.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert also impressed senators by outlining future capital improvement projects and accomplishments made by the department during FY 2006. Senators were especially interested in the fact that Human Services was recently able to reprogram approximately $1.5 million in vacancy savings for utility costs and professional services contracts–including an agreement with CHG Staffing Inc., which provides the department with available nurses.
In response to concerns expressed by senators about the need to contract nursing services, Halbert said that the territory's nurse shortage, coupled with the department's inability to increase starting salaries for employees, has been problematic.
Department representatives said they are trying to remedy the salary issue by working with the Office of Collecting Bargaining. However, Halbert said nurses currently employed by the department first have to be transferred to a local union
According to Asiah Clendinen, the department's director of Human Resources, salaries offered by the department for entry-level nursing positions are low and cannot be increased since CHG staff currently does not belong to a local union. If those employees were transferred, salary increases could be included in a negotiated collective bargaining agreement, she said.
Clendinen also told senators that the department is currently trying to fill 74 vacancies which have remained open during FY 2006. She explained that employee retirement and resignations have contributed to the number of vacant slots, along with low salaries offered to new employees.
"However, recent negotiations have allowed the salaries to become more attractive, enabling us to fill all of our open social worker positions on St. Thomas," Clendinen said.
The department's budget statement indicates that 58 of the 74 vacancies are paid for by the General Fund at a cost of approximately $1.7 million, while the remaining positions are federally funded at a cost of approximately $402,000. Human Services has also budgeted for 941 filled positions, bringing the total number of employees up to 1,015.
Personnel services accounts for approximately 49 percent of the department's General Fund budget for FY 2007, and is line-itemed at $17.6 million for 554 employees. Additionally, the department will be receiving $17.7 million in federal funds, which will cover 461 positions.
Senators said they also had concerns about how much the department is spending on professional services contracts, which is projected to be nearly $15.4 million during FY 2007. Halbert explained that many of the contracts, awarded to residential facilities on the mainland, are mandated by the local courts for adults and adolescents who are remanded or need professional treatment.
"We have a big problem with mental health services on the island," she said. "So when someone is ordered to receive treatment they can't get here, we have to ship them off island."
Halbert added that the department may be able to reduce contract costs by establishing a new Youth Rehabilitation Center on St .Thomas, which would focus on treatment programs. Such a center would also cut down on the number of juveniles sent to the St. Croix facility.
Halbert said that an unrenovated wing of the Knud Hansen Complex has been identified as a possible site for the new facility. While Halbert could not tell senators exactly how much it would cost to develop another YRC, she did say that "major renovations" to the wing would be needed in order to get the center up and running.
Halbert and other department officials suggested senators appropriate a limited number of funds to allow Human Services to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether such a complex is necessary for the island. "Our research has shown that states nationwide are moving away from constructing juvenile detention centers and moving toward implementing more mental health treatment options for minors," she added. "So we have to make sure whether we want to have two of these facilities, functioning on the same level, in both districts."
In response to questions from senators about other ongoing initiatives, Halbert said the department is currently working on expanding its Pharmaceutical Assistance Program, designed to enroll senior citizens in the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Coverage Program. She explained $1.5 million worth of funds recently awarded by the V.I. Lottery system has allowed Human Services to: expand educational outreach services for seniors interested in signing up for the program, increase enrollment, and enter into a contractual agreement with AARP Medicare RX to allow customers a wider range of providers.
Halbert said the program has to be expanded in order for the department to accommodate the territory's "rapidly growing" senior population. She added that the department has also been making improvements to the Herbert Grigg Home for the elderly on St. Croix and is completing negotiations for the purchase of the Keith Massac Nursing Facility on St. Thomas.
Halbert also briefly outlined how the department has been able to reduce the number of residents receiving financial aid through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program from 4,633 to 1,182 in FY 2006. She explained that the federal government requires Human Services wean residents off the program after they have been receiving assistance for five years. "If we don't do this, we could jeopardize the federal funds we're awarded," she said.
Human Services anticipates receiving approximately $30.2 million in federal grants for FY 2007, which brings the department's overall operating budget up to $80.6 million. This figure also includes: $48.2 million from the General Fund, $1 million from the Crisis Intervention Fund, and $1.15 million in non-appropriated funds.
Halbert requested a lump-sum budget for FY 2007, which would allow the department to reprogram any cost savings.
The department was granted a lump-sum budget last year by the Legislature.
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Ronald E. Russell and Usie R. Richards.
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