CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Some delegates are urging their colleagues to make West Virginia’s child welfare issues the priority of this legislative session.

That would mean making financial decisions a priority, too, during an otherwise flat budget year.

“We have so many issues in West Virginia with our children,” said Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, describing 25 percent of children living in poverty and about 80 percent of the children in foster care entering the system because of drug issues in their homes.

“We just see this is a real year when we can take care of some of those issues.”

Zukoff and other lawmakers including Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and Delegate Amanda Estep-Burton, had a press conference Monday morning to urge prioritizing children who are coping with poverty, drug abuse, parental separation and neglect; all considered Adverse Childhood Experience.

From there, Zukoff sat in the audience of a House Finance Committee meeting where the Department of Health and Human Resources was presenting its budget.

Because of West Virginia’s many drug addiction and child welfare issues, that agency’s $6.1 billion budget — mostly federal dollars — is receiving plenty of attention.

“We think it’s really important for West Virginians to put their money where their heart is, with our children,” Zukoff said.

“We know it’s a tough budget year for West Virginia, and the budget projections down the road are not very good for our state for the next three years. But when we’re dealing with children with trauma, if we don’t pay and take care of these issues now and try to help these children overcome the trauma they’ve experienced in their life, we’re going to be paying for it many years down the road.”

State officials have proposed using part of an estimated $309 million Medicaid surplus to meet other financial needs for the coming fiscal year.

Most of that money, $159 million, is targeted to meet other financial needs for the state in this coming year. Two delegates, Vernon Criss, R-Wood, and Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, asked how much of that money is going to pay for programs outside of DHHR.

“So some of this is for DHHR; some of it is for programs outside of DHHR,” Barrett said.

Another big part of that overall amount, $150 million, is proposed to be held in reserve for future Medicaid needs.

Jeremiah Samples

“As soon as next year we would have shortfalls in Medicaid,” said Jeremiah Samples, deputy director of DHHR.

“The proposal that we have before you with $150 million in reserve is to sustain Medicaid and to account for potential unexpected situations in the healthcare sector.”

Some lawmakers have questioned, though, whether other needs should be a priority for all or a portion of those funds.

One financial question is a proposal to increase the per diem rate for kinship families who take in children. A bill establishing a bill of rights for foster families has been amended to raise that rate.

Kinship families could be reimbursed at the same rate as foster families if they would complete a certification process. But advocates for the per diem change say that grandparents, for example, might not have the time to work toward certification.

Samples acknowledged that the certification process for foster families can present too many hurdles. But he could not definitively say that the reimbursement rate tilts families one way or another.

“We don’t have any evidence empirally that shows us that people aren’t becoming foster parents because of the pay,” he said.

But Samples said the bill now comes with an estimated $19 million price tag. He said the agency is working on a fiscal note to detail the possible cost.

Another financial choice is the $19.7 million that state leaders have targeted toward elimination of the Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities Waiver waiting list.

Doing so has bipartisan legislative support.

“Whenever we are able to provide IDD waiver services for kids, it does help to mitigate  the chance they might come into state custody,” Samples said.

And officials propose $26.4 million toward improvements to the DHHR’s Child Protective Services. That is aimed at continuing to reduce the high turnover rate of child protective services workers.

Bill Crouch

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said salaries for child protective services workers have already increased by 40 percent.

That has helped decrease turnover from 41 percent to 24 percent, he said. But he acknowledged that’s still too high.

“Of all the things we’ve done and the turnover we’ve reduced, it’s still not enough,” Crouch said.

Budget Presentation Slides 2020 for House of Delegates (Text)