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House votes to split big agency into Department of Health and Department of Human Resources

Delegates passed a bill that would split West Virginia’s enormous agency that deals with its many chronic health conditions as well as its challenges with the well-being of vulnerable citizens.

Matthew Rohrbach

Delegates passed House Bill 4020 on an 83-11 vote today, the last day to advance legislation to the other chamber. Under the bill, a split into the Department of Health and the Department of Human Resources would be finalized by July 2023.

“I think this is long overdue,” said House Health Chairman Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell.

Those who supported the bill expressed frustration about the state’s handling of pervasive societal issues such as drug addiction or the many children in foster care. Those delegates described the current structure of the Department of Health and Human Resources as too big to effectively manage.

Mike Honaker

“It’s streamlining government,” said Delegate Mike Honaker, R-Greenbrier. “The breadth and width and depth of this agency tremendously diminishes their responses.”

Some members of the Republican supermajority voted against the bill from concern that it would result in greater costs and bureaucratic expansion.

DHHR, with a $7.5 billion annual budget of combined state and federal money, is West Virginia’s biggest agency financially.

Dianna Graves

Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, spoke passionately in favor of the bill. She acknowledged the concerns about growing government, but said that the agency is already a financial behemoth.

“It’s too large to properly manage or hold accountable,” Graves said.

“DHHR is a financial avalanche, and it grows exponentially. So why do we keep throwing money at this without seeing any significant improvement? I’m gonna submit to you it’s because it’s got an unmanageable size, and a structural change can actually improve efficiency in government here.”

A fiscal note prepared by legislative in-house analysts estimates that additional cost would be more like $308,000. Most of that is anticipated to be a salary of $150,000 for the additional cabinet secretary. The current DHHR secretary, Bill Crouch, earlier told a committee the change might cost more, citing an in-house estimate of an additional $6.3 million.

Graves suggested that even if that higher cost is accurate, lawmakers should consider that versus the needs of children sent out-of-state to live: “Is that worth it to you to stop having West Virginia children sleeping alone, terrified and alone, in hotel rooms — and the only thing we’ve given them for comfort is a garbage bag filled with their clothes? Which do you think your constituents would prefer?”

Graves cited West Virginia’s struggles with substance abuse. “It’s really hard to argue that West Virginia has been dealing with the drug crisis in a stellar way,” she said. “Having to funnel almost all our efforts through a massively inefficient agency is not working.”

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