CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After meeting for several hours, the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee passed a bill that will reshape important aspects of West Virginia’s overloaded foster care system.
“It’s my opinion this may be the most important bill we have before us this session,” said Senator Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, the committee chairman.
The number of children in West Virginia’s foster care system has grown in correlation with the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the state. The Department of Health and Human Resources has reported about 7,000 children are now in foster care, kinship care or custody of the state.
“We are in the midst of a child welfare crisis in West Virginia,” said Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for DHHR. “Our ability to manage this issue has been tested. We are bursting at the seams.”
As he has during other committee meetings as the bill journeyed through the Legislature, Samples said the agency needs help.
“It’s unlike anything that we’ve ever experienced,” he said.
The bill lawmakers are considering takes on many aspects of the foster care system.
It creates a state foster care ombudsman. It extends the time foster care certification is authorized. It requires an annual home safety assessment. It prohibits the termination of parental rights when the parent is participating in a medically assisted treatment program.
“There are various components of this bill that drive toward finding more foster parents,” Samples said.
And it also seeks to reduce the number of children placed in out-of-state treatment facilities, a longstanding issue for West Virginia’s system.
“Ideally, we don’t want any children out of state,” Samples said.
The most controversial aspect of the legislation, though, would open up the foster care population to a managed care organization.
DHHR, which already has a contract for review, says it needs the help to provide a seamless system, particularly for healthcare. Advocates for the change have referenced how difficult it is for medical records, like vaccinations or dental visits, to be tracked as children move from home to home.
Skeptics believe the drive to profit will suck away dollars that otherwise would have gone toward helping children.
Prompted by a question from Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, Samples acknowledged that controversy.
“I think there is a general concern about privatization,” Samples said.
A public hearing in the House of Delegates last month drew out dozens of speakers — most against the managed care aspect of the bill.
“Even folks who disagree with the approach, we hope they stay engaged with the process,” Samples said.
Palumbo asked how long the agency has been considering managed care and why it is acting now.
“Frankly it’s a very complicated issue,” Samples said. “We wanted to tackle this issue holistically. We think we’re at a point right now that we need to act.”
There were a couple of amendments adopted in Senate Health.
One by Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, offered one requiring 80 percent of the managed care employees work in West Virginia.
“With these MCOs, we’re dealing with kids, West Virginia kids,” Tarr said. “If we have MCOs from out of state that had not been here, that now their business is to care for West Virginia children — is there a requirement in any way that makes them be part of the community?”
Another amendment by Senator Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, modified an aspect of the bill prohibiting the removal of a child from a residential child care program
The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.
“It’s a high-anxiety bill if I’ve ever seen one,” Tarr said. “I can tell you the people who come through, because we’re dealing with our West Virginia kids, they have great concern about it. When will you be able to report back with objective measures of what this bill did to say we’re either on the right track or we’re not?”
Samples cited a monthly report on out-of-state placements.
“We would expect to see things turn around, especially in the 2020 calendar year, the MCO portion of this goes into effect,” Samples said.