CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An estimated $200 million contract to manage the health care for thousands of foster children has been awarded to Aetna Better Health of West Virginia.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources announced the contract’s awarding Tuesday. The duration of the contract may be up to the next three and a half years.

Legislation to convert the health care coverage of foster children to a managed care system was reflected in controversial legislation that passed in the most recent session.

Critics worried that the system would be governed by the financial bottom line.

DHHR consistently said it needed help managing an overloaded system. State officials said benefits would include more consistently tracking health records of foster children who may have moved from home to home.

Jeremiah Samples

“West Virginia is in the midst of a child welfare crisis, and DHHR believes the utilization of an MCO to help provide coordinated care to this vulnerable population will assist us in addressing this issue,” Jeremiah Samples, deputy secretary for DHHR, stated today.

The number of children in West Virginia’s foster care system has grown in correlation with the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the state. DHHR has reported about 7,000 children are now in foster care, kinship care or custody of the state.

A class action federal lawsuit was filed this fall claimed DHHR has failed West Virginia’s youngest, most at-risk citizens —  claiming rampant issues with institutionalization for children.

DHHR has said implementing managed care for the state’s child welfare population will help streamline the administration of health services.

Officials also said services now may be better tailored to meet the needs of enrolled populations and that care may be better coordinated.

Another major goal has been to transition juveniles from out-of-state care to community-based treatment in West Virginia.

The managed care transition drew the most attention as legislation moved this year, but the bill  that passed had additional aspects, too.

It created a state foster care ombudsman, extended the time foster care certification is authorized, required an annual home safety assessment and prohibited the termination of parental rights when the parent is participating in a medically assisted treatment program.

Amy Summers

Earlier this week, House Majority Leader Amy Summers said there is more to be done. She said lawmakers have continued studying foster care programs during interim legislative sessions.

Additional legislative changes might include codifying foster families’ rights and removing an additional 45-day waiting period in the adoption process.

“We want to enhance any aspects of the system we can to make this endeavor less stressful for all involved,” Summers stated. “This may be through new legislation or just alerting the relevant governmental agencies and foster care providers what needs to be done better to make the journey easier for all involved.”

The West Virginia Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Care Network, in partnership with Marshall University and the state Department of Health and Human Resources, recently released a survey designed to allow foster, adoptive and kinship parents the opportunity to provide comments on how to strengthen the state’s child welfare system.

That survey is available at wvfosterparents.org/survey. It will be available until Nov. 18 to allow time for processing submissions ahead of December legislative interim committee meetings.

“We thoroughly support the biological parents’ rights all while wanting the families who step up to provide the valuable service of foster care the support they need,” Summers stated.

“In order to identify the areas of concern foster parents share, the Legislature will receive the results of a survey prepared by the foster community in December and use it to continue our reform efforts.”