Children, elderly, disabled affected

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

Cuts proposed by the state Legislature to the Department of Health and Social Services budget could have widespread implications, including loss of federal funding, fewer public services and less financial aid for Alaska's low-income, disabled and elderly citizens.

"It just seems that they're cutting where it hurts you most."

Deni Pennison, a mother of two in North Kenai, was less than thrilled at the idea of budget cuts for social services around the state -- particularly proposed cuts that would impact the Kenai Health Center.

As a child, Pennison received all her immunizations from the Public Health nurses at Kenai Health Center. Her children, now 3 and 6, have received all their immunizations at the center as well.

"I just found out this afternoon that (the Public Health nurses) go to the senior center, so my grandmother gets all her shots from them, too," Pennison said.

Immunizations are a big part of the job for public health nurses. Kenai Public Health nurse Mary Jane Hanley said the center is the largest provider of immunizations in the area. Last year, staff members administered about 26,200 of the disease-hampering shots.

But that's really just a portion of what the nurses offer.

They also track and treat sexually transmitted diseases, which can be dangerous themselves and lead to long-lasting health problems. They follow up on and treat tuberculosis cases. They offer well-child exams to catch any health problems early in children and offer health care for children with special needs. They offer low-cost and free birth control for families.

In 2001, the nurses saw a total of 13,998 individuals for various reasons.

Currently, the Kenai Health Center offers these services with a 15-person staff, including eight public health nurses, three public health nurse aids and four clerks.

According to impact statements prepared by DHSS Administrative Services Director Janet Clarke, the House plan to balance the state budget means cutting 10 public health nurses and three support staff positions across the state. It also will reduce the general fund so far that the Public Health Division will no longer be eligible for federal matching funds -- a $50,000 loss on top of the staff cuts.

"There are so many other things they can cut besides kids," Pennison said, maintaining that the services are critical to families. "It seems they're cutting where it hurts you most."

"It's almost like we're balancing the budget on the backs of kids."

The Division of Family and Youth Services would be another victim of the proposed budget reduction.

"They're talking about cutting 34 positions statewide -- 20 front-line workers and 14 balloon workers," said Bill Galic, supervisor of intake investigations at the Kenai DFYS office.

Presently, he said, the division is overworked, but doing a good job.

Caseworkers are able to investigate all legitimate child protection complaints on a face-to-face basis, have the time and resources to work with many families rather than remove the children and, if children do have to be removed, are able to process parental-right revocation paper work in a timely manner to find permanent housing for children.

Five years ago, that wasn't the case.

"We had more work than staff," Galic said. "We used to have to judge complaints and decide which ones to investigate. I'll tell you, it's a thing that makes me toss and turn at night -- making a judgment when you can't see the children. You always worry that you're making the wrong choice."

The addition of a balloon position -- originally a federally funded position to help the division keep up with the reams of legal paper work -- and a fourth front-line worker helped the Kenai office catch up.

Social workers still take on an average of 19 new cases per month, while the national standard is only 12 cases per month. But Galic said he believes the office is in a far better place than it has been in the past.

"I think we're where the community wants us to be right now, but that's really in jeopardy with these cuts," he said. "It's almost like we're balancing the budget on the backs of kids -- and this is safety, not a lot of frills."

Other proposed cuts to DFYS include a reduction in the residential care budget, meaning the division will be able to take in fewer of the youth who cannot be put in foster care. The foster care base rate is also up for a 5 percent cut, though the current reimbursement rate is based on the 1993 poverty guidelines.

"It barely reimburses foster parents right now, and many pay out of their own pocket," Galic said. "If we cut more, I fear we're going to lose some foster parents. As it is, we don't have enough."

"It's going to make a big impact on the people least able to make up the deficit that is caused in their income and services."

The social services cuts wouldn't impact only children, though. They will also hit low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.

"As we understand it, we're going to get a 6 percent funding cut to our grants for care for people with developmental disabilities," said Wini Crosby, director of Frontier Community Services.

That equals about $50,000 worth of services that won't be available to the organization's peninsula clients, including in-home care for people with disabilities or elderly individuals living alone.

"It could create an unsafe home environment," Crosby said.

The Alaska Temporary Assistance Program (ATAP), which is the Alaska version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, will also receive major budget cuts due to the House plan, vastly reducing temporary financial aid for families.

In fact, the ATAP general fund would be cut so much that it would drop below federal regulations, causing a dollar-for-dollar loss of federal TANF funds.

On top of the general fund, the welfare-to-work portion of ATAP would be cut by an additional $303,300, which would violate more federal regulations and result in a loss of $910,000 in federal funds in terms of penalties and reduced federal grants. ATAP child care benefits for families trying to get off welfare would also be cut by $100,000 on the state level -- resulting in an additional loss of $300,000 in federal funds.

"All in all, it's going to make a big impact on the people least able to make up the deficit that is caused in their income and services," Crosby said.

The full 45 pages of DHSS impact statements can be downloaded from the Internet at 030MB/Impact/HFSC_HSS.pdf.

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