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State and local officials agree that child welfare services need improvement throughout Pennsylvania. But they also acknowledge funding remains an issue ahead of the state budget process.

Roughly 30 officials convened Wednesday in York City at a roundtable discussion sponsored by the state Department of Human Services at Martin Library, the first event in a statewide series.

"Our budget is growing, and the problem is growing because we have more people to serve, and that squeezes out opportunities to do other things," said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller. "We have a lot of folks that need more money."

Gov. Tom Wolf's surrogates are fanning out across the state, highlighting his policy and pitching his proposed budget.  

More: Gov. Wolf pitches $2.6 billion spending increase

Wednesday's roundtable took place about a week after Wolf unveiled his budget wish list for the upcoming fiscal year — one that drew the ire of many Republicans, who panned his call for a 9% increase in DHS funding in particular. 

The $14.3 billion DHS spending within Wolf's proposal makes up more than one-third of the total $36 billion draft budget.

Miller attributed some of the spending increases to the fact that a growing number of residents need services. As of 2018, roughly 185,000 people received child welfare services in Pennsylvania, she said.

The most drastic spending increases would be for Community HealthChoices, a program providing health care services to keep the elderly and disabled at home rather than in a facility, and capitation, a fixed amount of money paid in advance to a physician for health care services.

The budget proposal calls for a $910 million increase in spending for Commnuity HealthChoices, spurred by the state's growing elderly population. It calls for $665 million in increased spending for capitation.

"DHS needs an additional $800 million just in its current fiscal year," said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, after the budget proposal last week. "That's an overage of 6%. In the private sector, people would be fired for those kind of overages and lack of performance."

The Legislature's budget hearings begin Monday, Feb. 18. Republicans are bound to pare back Wolf's proposal where possible, which will likely touch DHS spending.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township, who attended Wednesday's roundtable, said  one way to curb overspending would be to ensure that money only goes to programs that do exactly what they're intended to do.

Making spending more efficient can also be done through local agencies supplying their legislators with as much data as possible so lawmakers know where to allocate funding, she said.

"Everyone struggles with limited resources. so it's really imperative that we put money into programs that do what they say they're going to do to lift people out of poverty and make sure that families are healthy and children are safe."

Jon Rubin, deputy secretary of the DHS' Office of Children, Youth and Families, added that  often times local agencies miss out on grant opportunities because the programs they create don't meet specific criteria.

As grants come from both the state and federal government, he said, agencies need to use a "braided" approach, meaning they take into consideration grant restrictions and tailor their programs to check every box.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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