Eye On Boise

'Can no longer guarantee good public policy'

Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong tells the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning that budget cuts are having such severe impacts on his department, at a time of soaring caseloads, that he can no longer accomplish
Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong tells the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning that budget cuts are having such severe impacts on his department, at a time of soaring caseloads, that he can no longer accomplish "good public policy" in implementing the cuts. (Betsy Russell)

Budget cuts have had severe impact at the state Department of Health & Welfare, Director Dick Armstrong told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning. Much of Health & Welfare consists of programs in which the federal government provides matching money tied to state spending; in Medicaid, the largest program, a $1 cut in state funds means losing $3.75 in federal money too, for a total impact on Idahoans of $4.75. "As a result of budget reductions, the department has not leveraged $54 million of federal funds in fiscal year 2009, and an estimated $68 million in the current fiscal year," Armstrong told legislative budget writers. "This adds up to $120 million of federal funds left on the table for Idaho."

The cuts have come at a time of soaring caseloads, he said. Food stamp applications are up 55 percent since 2007, and the number of Idahoans on food stamps has swelled from 87,000 to 179,000. Medicaid participants are up 13 percent since 2007; child support caseloads are up 9 percent. The people being helped by Health & Welfare programs, Armstrong said, are "casualties of the economy." He said, "Dealing with record numbers of people has not been easy. Our office lobbies remain crowded." Most of those waiting are "people who've never applied for public assistance before," he said. "Things are not slowing down."

Armstrong said he was proud of customer services improvements the department has made in the past few years, but that's starting to slide now. "Our productivity gains simply cannot keep pace with the rapid growth in the number of citizens eligible for services," he said. The cuts have forced nearly all department employees to take 9.5 unpaid furlough days this year, he said, which equates to a 3.7 percent pay cut. All Health & Welfare offices will close at noon every other Friday for the rest of the fiscal year, starting this Friday. Armstrong said he's hearing reports daily of department employees who are working after hours or on weekends or losing vacation time because of the need to help so many people. The department also eliminated 23 full-time positions. "This year," Armstrong said, "we can no longer guarantee changes will result in good public policy as we struggle with the enormity of the deficit."




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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