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Governor Jim Justice gives health agencies big budget boost

This story originally appeared in the Statehouse Spotlight newsletter published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get coverage of the legislative session delivered to your email inbox Monday – Thursday; sign up for the free newsletter at mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

By Erin Beck, Mountain State Spotlight

Gov. Jim Justice has proposed granting a large chunk of the money his three health-related agencies said they needed to meet the urgent needs of West Virginians.

In his budget, Justice recommended funding contract nurses for troubled state-psychiatric hospitals, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and an increase to address lagging autopsy investigations in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, among other programs and services. 

Justice recommended some of the new money come from the state’s huge budget surplus, a move his critics have suggested for several years. But the governor did not fund additional child protection workers that health officials said are critically needed.

His three cabinet secretaries over the newly-formed state agencies — the Department of Health Facilities, the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services — said in a press release that Justice had recommended funding $255 million of the $279 million they had ultimately asked for. 

“The budget that Governor Justice released is a win-win for all three agencies,” said Michael J. Caruso, Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Health Facilities. “The proposed budget increase aims to enhance existing programs, introduce innovative measures, and strengthen the state’s overall capacity to address the diverse needs of its residents.”

The governor’s proposed budget also funds several smaller programs officials warned would be cut without increases, including the state’s 988 suicide hotline and Justice’s signature Jobs and Hope drug recovery program.

Justice lauded the success of the latter during his State of the State address on Wednesday, introducing a graduate of the program. But while he also talked about the importance of child protective service workers, his budget did not propose the $9 million increase officials said was needed.

“We need CPS workers. We need more dollars. There’s been real improvement made,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need to do all we possibly can to help these families and help these kids and we’re going to do it.” 

Later in the week, the governor touted the agency’s progress in reducing vacant positions. 

But the Department for Human Services had flagged hiring 130 new child protective service workers as a top priority, and necessary to comply with a new law. The bill, which Justice signed last year, aims to reduce CPS worker caseloads and employ workers in regions based on population to result in fewer delays in investigations.

Department officials didn’t respond to a request for comment about how they would comply with the new law without the extra funding. 

Justice’s budget, released on Wednesday, has also drawn criticism. State health officials had said they needed $131 million more to provide services to low or no-income residents as part of the Medicaid federal/state health insurance program; Justice granted that increase, but put it in the back of the budget bill, under items he intends to pay for with a surplus. That drew objections from Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who pointed out that surplus funds are for one-time costs, not ongoing expenses like the Medicaid program. 

On Tuesday, Mountain State Spotlight reported that the health officials had asked the governor for nearly $300 million more through filing what’s known as an “improvement request.” These records typically haven’t been made public in years past; they were obtained from the state legislative auditor’s office through the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

After Justice released his budget, the three health agencies issued a press release praising the governor, and saying their “confidential discussions” had been “misrepresented” by the media. None responded to multiple emails and a phone message seeking clarification. 

The governor’s office hasn’t responded to emails seeking rationale on his decision-making process, and health departments’ spokespersons also haven’t replied to inquiries about budget needs this year.

Justice’s budget proposal now goes to state lawmakers, who will make their own revisions. House of Delegates Finance Chair Vernon Criss, R-Wood, noted that factor in an emailed statement. In the email, House spokesperson Ann Ali, said, “the Chairman said it continues to be too early in the process for him to have more than a cursory look at the executive’s budget proposal and be able to speak about the way it’s structured.”

Another member of House leadership, Health and Human Resources Committee Chair Amy Summers, R-Taylor, says she wants to determine whether health programs are effective at current funding levels.

She’s introduced a bill that could result in less health spending; it states its aim is to improve government program effectiveness and find spending “waste” and “inefficiencies.”

The bill, approved by Summers’ committee on Thursday, says state officials aren’t tracking or providing lawmakers or the public with specific information on whether their programs work. 

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