Give Pennsylvania Counties Flexibility In How They Deliver Human Services

Beverly D. Mackereth
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For decades Pennsylvania counties have been providing crucial human services programs to the citizens of this commonwealth. Over the years these programs have evolved to better meet the needs of the people they serve. But for far too long counties have been restricted in how they use state funds.

The state has been distributing $750 million through seven human-service silos. These include mental health and intellectual disability community programs, child welfare special grants, homeless assistance, behavioral health services, drug and alcohol funds, and human services development funding.

Some counties have found that funding in some areas would run out while other programs would have a surplus, leaving them in a difficult predicament. Strict rules would not allow the transfer of funds to cover local needs.

Those needs vary greatly across the commonwealth. The human-service challenges in counties such as Bucks or Chester may be entirely different from the challenges in counties such as Allegheny or Greene. Yet our old “cookie cutter” approach meant that local, unique needs often could not be addressed.

This is why Gov. Tom Corbett last June signed into law an innovative way to tear down the bureaucratic barriers and allow counties to decide how best to serve the needs of their local populations: the Human Services Block Grant Pilot Program. After it was approved, 30 counties eagerly applied to participate, though only 20 were permitted to do so. Ten counties were left behind.

This year, Gov. Corbett wants all counties to be able to choose whether to participate in this new approach to human services.

In less than a year, we are seeing successes from the pilot program. Block grant counties have reported significant advances. New team-based, coordinated-care approaches are being developed to care for citizens who may require needs across multiple funding streams. For example, homelessness and mental health often go hand-in-hand. A person who requires services from both can now receive them with fewer bureaucratic obstacles.

The flexibility in the block grant has provided greater transparency to the funding process in Allegheny County through the creation of an advisory group that weighs in on how the county spends its block grant dollars. Allegheny also was able to move additional dollars into drug and alcohol services to address local problems.

Greene County has been able to hire a family resource caseworker to work with families and individuals who do not fall specifically under one system.

After piloting the block grant, Butler County commissioners established a Human Services Block Grant Planning Team that includes representatives from the board of commissioners, the local United Way, the faith-based community, the business community and individuals and families who are recipients of services. This team’s focus is to establish new public/private partnerships that address gaps and issues within their system.

These are just a few of the successes that the administration has seen so far. It is time to remove the 20-county ceiling so that every county has the opportunity to pursue greater efficiencies through a flexible funding approach.

These decisions should reside in each county’s hands, rather than having mandated spending levels handed down by Harrisburg. Under the governor’s plan, counties may opt in to the block grant or remain under the traditional funding approach. By placing the decision at the county level, we not only can reduce the “Harrisburg knows best” mentality, but we can allow for greater flexibility and innovation at the local level.

As a former executive director of York County Human Services, I would have quickly embraced the opportunity to participate in the Human Services Block Grant pilot. Having flexibility to better serve the needs of our citizens on the local level will promote a healthier and happier community.