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Administration fills in few blanks for combined health agency

More details expected in Feb. 7 budget address

If all goes as planned, the commonwealth should have a new Department of Health and Human Services, an agency that will combine operations four existing agencies, by the start of the new fiscal year in July, according to the Wolf administration.

But the consolidation plan proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf hinges on gaining approval from lawmakers in the General Assembly during the upcoming state budget process, which will begin with next week’s budget address by the governor.

Wolf wants to combine the Departments of Aging, Health, Human Services, and Drug and Alcohol Programs.

“Our goal is to get legislation passed by the end of June,” Secretary of Policy and Planning Sarah Galbally said.

The administration, which has been discussing the possibility of consolidation since at least August, said a combined agency stands to eliminate duplicative processes and boost state service levels. That, in turn, should reduce costs to taxpayers at a time when the state is facing a sizable budget shortfall.

How much money the state will save is still unknown. Galbally and a Wolf spokesman said more information would be available as part of the Feb. 7 budget address. 

However, officials did say “minimal layoffs” are expected as a result of this agency consolidation, which might not be the last.

In response to a reporter’s question, Galbally said there have been conversations about combining state corrections with probation and parole. No decisions have been made.

“This is it for the time being,” Galbally said.

In December, the Wolf administration announced that thousands of unfilled state positions would not be filled as one way to save money in the budget.

According to PennWatch, the state government’s transparency website, there were 16,380 salaried employees and 912 hourly employees in the Department of Human Services, as of Jan. 15. Last month, there were 16,402 salaried and 999 hourly employees.

The other three agencies, which are a lot smaller, have seen very few staffing changes over the month, according to PennWatch.

Administration officials stressed that state programs will not be impacted by this move.

“This announcement and initiative does not involve cutting programs and is primarily aimed at delivering better services to our consumers, especially seniors and individuals with disabilities and substance use disorder,” Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said.

Providers ranging from hospitals and child care centers to substance use  treatment facilities and nursing homes licensed by the various agencies also would see significant regulatory changes. Instead of inspections and audits from multiple agencies, there would be one agency to centralize those functions.

The new Department of Health and Human Services also would have a secretary overseeing it, plus another cabinet-level position that would be dedicated to battling the opioid and heroin epidemic in Pennsylvania.

Additional details on the structure of the department will be released next week, officials said.

With the transition, residents should expect more of a “one-stop shop” for all program services offered by the four existing agencies, Galbally said, suggesting it’s more likely that employees will be cross-trained in other areas.

Fifteen other states already have an integrated model for health and human services.

“There is going to be meaningful change,” Galbally said. “The goal is to take the time to do it right so there is no negative impact.”


Several trade groups have already offered support of Wolf’s consolidation plan.

Here are a few excerpts from early statements:

  • W. Russell McDaid, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association: “This proposal will allow the state’s regulatory agencies and the Medicaid program to work in unison to develop policies that positively impact nursing home residents and direct care workers creating efficiencies that will hopefully ensure that even more resources are provided at a resident’s bedside, where they are needed the most, while continuing to make certain that Pennsylvania’s seniors and individuals with disabilities continue to receive quality care.”
  • Charles Cutler, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society: “As we’ve done in the past, we will continue to work with the administration and legislature to ensure patients have access to the services and programs they need. Our plans are to continue to be a full partner with the Governor and the Commonwealth while working toward a seamless transition.”
  • Shirley Walker, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability: “A combined state agency promotes the opportunity for true collaboration around whole person wellness. It also will allow us to strategically address the common ground shared across the various health and human services programs – a dire workforce crisis. It is with this perspective and the natural synergies that exist in the intellectual disability and autism system that informs PAR’s support for the proposed merger.”

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