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Welfare Advocates Object To New Rule Allowing DPW To Re-Write Welfare Code

Welfare Advocates Object To New Rule Allowing DPW To Re-Write Welfare Code

The clock is ticking for the state Department of Public Welfare.

Under the budget Gov. Tom Corbett signed late Thursday, the department has to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses while still providing services required by law.

To help, state lawmakers gave the agency a controversial tool this week when it re-wrote the welfare code.

  • For the next year, the DPW can change some of its regulations — modifying existing benefits or creating new co-pays for some services — without going through the formal review process. Benefits could be lowered, and some recipients potentially could be excluded altogether.

And some advocates for those who receive welfare services are crying foul.

Normally, departments submit new rules for public and legislative comment, then must respond to those comments before the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission. Afterward, agencies must  address the commission’s recommendations, then submit revised rule changes for approval, a process that can take months.

Now, the DPW simply can post an item 30 days for public comment and legislative review, and implement changes it believes are necessary.

“Given that we have to find significant savings in this fiscal year, we don’t have time to go through the regulatory review process,” said Michael Race, a spokesman for the DPW.

The department has yet to determine what changes it might make, Race said. Its attorneys soon will determine where it can and cannot alter regulations.

Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Cleona, who sponsored the code overhaul, said a few areas likely will be targeted:

  • Special allowances, which help people on welfare prepare for work by paying for items such as clothes, tools or training;
  • Transportation allowances for welfare-to-work programs;
  • Charge fees or co-pays for the families of so-called loophole kids: children with autism or other behavioral disorders whose families need services, but earn too much to qualify for Medicare;
  • Drug tests would be required for any welfare recipient who has a felony drug conviction within five years;
  • Welfare recipients would be forced to register in the county where they reside, which Gingrich said will cut down on “benefit shopping.”

“There’s no better time to go in and take a look at the department and enhance efficiency,” Gingrich said. “We’re giving an opportunity for the secretary and the good people in his department to get some work done.”

Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland County, whose committee amended and approved the code overhaul, said she was initially concerned that some programs could be cut too severely. But after the welfare department agreed to hear public and legislative comment, she was reassured.

“I still don’t love it, but I think this is reasonable,” Vance said. “Hopefully, since there’s a public comment period and since they have to notify us, we could rear up and stop it.”

But since the DPW will not have to answer any complaints made by the public or legislators to the review commission, Zurflieh predicted the department will just move ahead with any cuts.

The state’s seniors, unemployed and impoverished children shouldn’t have to count on legislators noticing a problem and being able to stop it in such a short time, Zurflieh said.

Zurflieh pointed to DPW Secretary Gary D. Alexander’s record when he led Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services. There, the maximum limit that a family could receive cash assistance was cut from 60 months, which it is in Pennsylvania, to 24 months during the height of the recession. It’s not clear if the DPW could make a similar change here.

If it does, Zurflieh said, the voices of those effected will not be adequately heard.

What’s more, he said, many of the targeted items, such as the special allowances, were overhauled in November. Those changes will go into effect this month and are sure to produce some savings. The state should see how that works, he said, before overhauling a program again so quickly.


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