Welfare Overhaul Under Way

Robert Swift
Scranton Times-Tribune

Pennsylvania will scale back welfare benefits and place new demands on recipients under terms of a law enacted with the state budget.

The measure signed last week by Gov. Tom Corbett is designed to produce an estimated $400 million in savings from the state Department of Public Welfare this fiscal year.

On one hand, the law will require random drug testing of welfare recipients who have been convicted of a prior drug felony. On the other hand, the law authorizes a new monthly premium or co-payment for medical assistance coverage provided to special-needs children who need services, but whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicare.

The full scope of the pending changes remains to be seen while this law is implemented by DPW officials.

House Republican lawmakers said the legislation achieves one of their major policy goals this session — to crack down on what they described as “waste, fraud and abuse” in welfare programs.

House Democratic lawmakers said the law puts too much power in the hands of one individual — the new Welfare Secretary Gary Alexander, who was confirmed to the post by the Senate two weeks ago.

The law bestows special authority upon Mr. Alexander for one year only to expedite regulations to put the anticipated savings into effect by setting eligibility rules, changing benefits, requiring co-payments for services, revising payment rate schedules and prohibiting new contracts for outside expertise unless it’s determined to be a cost-effective move.

Practically speaking, Mr. Alexander will be able to implement regulatory changes without seeking approval from the Legislature and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which includes appointees from the legislative and executive branches.

Mr. Alexander has yet to make any decisions on what changes to propose, but he will seek input from lawmakers and interested parties, said welfare department spokesman Michael Race Tuesday. This authority will allow the welfare department to speed up the decision-making process, not circumvent openess, he added.

“The conventional processes simply would be too cumbersome and time-consuming,” said Mr. Race. “This truly is a case where “time is money.”

One decision will involve developing a system to randomly test at least 20 percent of welfare recipients who have had a drug-related felony conviction within five years or are currently on probation for a drug-related felony conviction.

The welfare department will balance the need to be cost-effective and have a testing system in place as quickly as possible, said Mr. Race.

Another change requires the agency to set up a fraud-detection system to verify income eligibility of an applicant before providing benefits.

The law gives the welfare department authority to limit benefit packages for dental and pharmacy services for adult medical assistance recipients, implement co-payments on a sliding income scale for child care services for working parents, require recipients to register for benefits in the county where they reside, and overhaul a “special allowance” program that helps recipients prepare for work by paying for such items as clothes, tools or training.

The welfare department will have to implement these changes at a time when it has 1,800 fewer welfare caseworkers on the job than it did several years ago, said Leah Wright, spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Social Service Union Local 668.

Rep. Ken Smith, D-112, Dunmore, said he voted for the drug-testing requirement when it came up as a separate bill in the House Health Committee. But Mr. Smith voted against the final bill because it gives too much discretionary power to the welfare secretary.

“It’s a power grab, and this is not a good thing,” he said.

“These reforms will ensure taxpayer dollars are targeted to folks truly in need,” said Rep. Dave Reed, R-62, Indiana, chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee.

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