IOWA VIEW - Evolution of Human Services

Thursday, November 1, 2001

As a longtime advocate for people with special needs, I came into office with a belief based on first-hand experience that we could make things better.

On October 25th, Governor Vilsack and I announced a plan to make sweeping changes in Iowa's Department of Human Services. This plan will make dramatic improvements to

the department by focusing the department's attention on its primary purpose - protecting children and other vulnerable Iowans.

Indeed, current budget pressures make these changes imperative if we're to continue serving the children and families who need our assistance. In order to address the recent sudden economic downturn, the governor has ordered all departments to cut their spending by 4.3 percent. However, an across the board cut to Human Services would cause a devastating impact on service.

Front line staff would be reduced by more than 300. Such a drastic cut in front line workers would put thousands of Iowa's children and families at risk.

So we have asked legislators to reimburse the agency for a $3 million shortfall of federal funds during a special session that we've called for November 8. We can avoid a negative impact of an across the board cut by legislative approval of this plan. We can meet the needs of at-risk Iowans even as we balance the state's budget.

Our plan retains most of the 1,300 existing front line workers and makes deep cuts in supervisory and managerial staff, both in the field and in the

central Des Moines office. Front line staff include income maintenance workers who help process welfare and food stamp applications, and two groups

of social workers who evaluate the threat in alleged abuse cases and who provide follow up in cases where services are needed to prevent further abuse.

Retaining front line workers will mean eliminating five regional offices (in Council Bluffs, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City and Des Moines) and eliminating 37 additional local multi-county administrative positions, replacing both with eight service area supervisory offices. In addition,

nearly one third of all supervisory and management positions will be cut. An

additional 65 positions will be cut from the central DHS office in Des Moines.

Our plan also maintains full-time county offices in 59 of Iowa's most populous counties. Offices in less populous counties will be staffed by

part-time workers.

The Human Services department currently has some responsibilities that would be handled more efficiently and more appropriately by other agencies. We propose that licensing functions be handled by the Department of Inspections and Appeals, the elder service waiver program be handled by the Department

of Elder Affairs, and a series of prevention activities, such as programs to prevent teen pregnancy, go to the Department of Health. With legislative approval in the January 2002 regular session, those changes would go into

effect next summer.

Finally, we will ask lawmakers to end the code of confidentiality in cases

involving the Department of Human Services when deaths or near deaths occur.

Under current law, Human Services officials are prohibited from commenting or releasing specific information in such cases. We believe it's important

to remove secrecy from these cases. With a more focused, streamlined organization, the Human Services department

will become more proficient in its core mission - protecting the most vulnerable Iowans. That means great progress toward our goal of providing

better services to our citizens.

Sally Pederson writes a regular column for readers of the Pilot-Tribune.