Budget issues reduce DHS provisions to bare minimum

By Julie Fann
star staff

State Department of Human Services (DHS) Commissioner, Virginia Lodge, met with local leaders and citizens Thursday at the Vocational Rehabilitation Center in Elizabethton during her tour of the state's 140 offices to become familiar with personnel and procedures.
   During a question-and-answer session, she spoke candidly about recent slashes to DHS dollars to meet the nine percent cut required by the state, which resulted in subsequent reductions in federal funding.
   "Order of selection effects a lot of folks. ... When we went before the Legislature, and we started saying, if this last one we suggested goes through we're talking about maybe having trouble with quadriplegics, they said, 'What do you mean?', and we're at that point. People have to have multiple, severe issues before we're able to help them at this point; it's gotten so tight," Lodge said.
   Carol Bowers, a leader in the Elizabethton vocational rehabilitation office, said that the new "order of selection" procedures altered by the state greatly affects who, exactly, is able to receive help from DHS.
   "Before, we could serve practically anyone that came through the door that had a job restriction due to a physical or mental disability. Now, we must see all of this documentation, such as a high school transcript, medical records, and other information. Then, we have to do an evaluation to determine how many 'functional limitations' an individual has," Bowers said.
   Bowers has approximately 150 clients in the Elizabethton office and oversees offices in Johnson County and a section of Bristol, Tenn.
   According to Lodge, cuts to vocational rehabilitation, which initially totaled $7 million when federal dollars were included, were restored when the Legislature decided to cut money used for the purchase of a new helicopter for the state's Department of Safety. The state receives an 80 percent federal match for every 20 percent it places in its own coffers.
   Other cuts to DHS services include several contracts with universities for statistical studies that weren't direct client services. Also, the state transferred a number of contracted technical employees and made them employees of the state, which Lodge said saved on administrative overhead.
   "We also had to cut some incentives in our Families First programs ... these were things like incentives for milestones along the way, like if you get your GED then you got this cash award, and if you kept a job for over a year - those had to be cut," Lodge said.
   DHS also cut back a one-time $800 dental allowance to clients to $600, which Lodge said is more significant than people realize. "This is the person who comes in who has no teeth left, and, as a result, has no incentive to get a job and become independent."
   However, the largest decrease in DHS services, according to Lodge, was a $1.5 million cut to Homemaker Funds. The Homemaker program provides assistance for three or four hours a week to those who otherwise would not be able to live independently, such as the elderly and those who suffer from mild mental retardation.
   "The homemaker helps them take medicine, and takes them to the doctor. For the elderly, it helps keep them out of a nursing home. Also, it's one of the places where we're able to identify adult abuse and/or self neglect. We're still looking for dollars to free up some money for that program," Lodge stated.
   A huge amount of funding was also eliminated from Adult Protective Services due to the fact that the program receives no matching federal dollars.
   In spite of strict budget reductions, Lodge said Carter County won't seriously feel the impact. Where individuals will feel the difference, she said, is in the enormous caseload workers carry due to TennCare changes and unemployment benefits that have peaked with the recession.
   Changes Lodge is interested in implementing as commissioner mainly revolve around increased training to prepare individuals for the workforce, as well as an updated computer system.
   "Now, caseworkers stay with a client all through a personal responsibility plan. It's a much more complicated system. Also, with TennCare re-verification, an office might receive 700 clients in July, and the same office would see 32,000 clients in October. There were lines out the door," Lodge said.
   However, overall, Lodge said she is greatly impressed and amazed by the dedication caseworkers have to a job with DHS. "These people don't work for the money. One of the things I've found in going around to these counties, the number one thing they're frustrated by is not being able to spend the time with clients as they used to be able to," she said.
   Lodge holds a master's degree in both English Literature and Business Administration and assisted Gov. Bredesen during his past campaign for mayor of Nashville.