Lawmakers consider pervasive issues while focusing on whether to split DHHR

This year’s legislative session began with such concern about the agency dealing with West Virginia’s most profound health and welfare issues, that leading senators from both parties asked for a deeper look at what the troubles are.

On the other side of the Capitol, members of the House of Delegates have expressed frustration that they passed a bill that would split the enormous Department of Health and Human Resources into two. House Bill 4020 now will be considered by members of the state Senate.

Stephen Baldwin

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, who first publicly proposed a legislative examination of issues at DHHR, sees a direct link between the initiatives.

“I do think this is related,” said Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. He cited financial concerns because of the enormity of the agency’s $7.5 billion overall budget of state and federal spending. He also described service-related concerns about the ability to do more for children and families. And substance abuse recovery has been another area of concern.

“There’s a sense among some in leadership that nobody’s in charge. What are we doing? Who’s coordinating all these efforts? Who’s saying this program is working, this program’s not working; who’s allocating resources based on that? I think there are questions about the direction of the agency and the nature of the leadership and the leadership structure there right now.”

Baldwin has been particularly concerned about a tragedy that occurred in a community he represents. A Greenbrier County woman in 2020 killed five young boys, set the family’s house on fire and then killed herself. Weeks before that, a dental hygienist made a referral to a child welfare hotline, but her concern apparently went no farther.

As he discussed these issues most recently, Baldwin was at a press conference to express support for a bill that would make a variety of changes to the programs supporting West Virginia’s most vulnerable children.

On the broader issues, Baldwin said it’s important to focus on how the agency would function best over the long term. “This is much bigger than any one person,” he said. “This is a significant structural issue that has existed in West Virginia for decades.”

Members of the House of Delegates have brought up the sheer size of DHHR, financially and structurally, while advancing the bill to split it into the Department of Health and the Department of Human Resources.

Getting a handle on the agency means making that divide, supporters of the bill have said.

Matthew Rohrbach

“This is far and away the largest part of state government,” House Health Chairman Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” last week.

“This is something that, frankly, has needed done for a long time. As DHHR has grown in responsibility, it just has become imperative that we split this in two.”

He said dividing the big agency into one agency focusing on health and another focusing on human welfare issues is logical. “The reason these splits make a lot of sense is these are really quite different buckets.” he said.

“I think right now we’ve just got one person, whoever that person is, pulled in too many different directions. I look at it more as focused leadership. Not that our current secretary is not a skilled leader, but I think we’re going to get a better product if we have one leader focused on the human resources and one focused on the health aspects of DHHR.”

Bill Crouch

DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch is the guy right now. During budget hearings before lawmakers earlier in the session, Crouch acknowledged a range of deep challenges, including the ability to retain employees like child protective services workers, the plight of foster children sent to out of state facilities and West Virginia’s ongoing struggle with the opioid crisis.

“We are struggling, and I’m worried. I’m calm about it, but I’m worried,” Crouch said during a House budget hearing when pressed by Delegate Dianna Graves.

On the subject of splitting DHHR, though, Crouch has cautioned that the divide could be more complicated than it would seem, particularly financially. “The idea that you can take a $7.5 billion department and split it into two and just keep everything the same underneath it, I just don’t think that’s logical,” Crouch said before the House Finance Committee.

Dianna Graves

Graves, R-Kanawha, took exception to that conclusion in remarks in committee and then on the House floor. She drew a direct line between the size of the agency and the way it approaches the state’s most pervasive problems.

Graves suggested that even if the cost of splitting the agency is high, 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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