Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has proposed a consolidation of multiple health and human services departments into a united Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The proposed move would combine the following departments: The Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Aging, and Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Wolf’s administration believes this will be a way to help balance the state’s budget, which is already overburdened. According to a Philly.com article, “Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale projected that state government may have to borrow as much as $3 billion for operating expenses between this July, when the new fiscal year begins, and next April.”

A goal of consolidating departments is to cut down on bureaucratic expenditures and reduce the need for PA to borrow money.

A Unified Department

“Creating a new, unified Department of Health & Human Services will dramatically improve our ability to deliver services that will improve lives while reducing costs to taxpayers,” according to
a statement released by Governor Wolf’s office.

The creation of a Department of Health & Human Services will also seek to improve the efficiency of delivering public health, social, and human services to Pennsylvanians. Under the current system, consumers often require more than one agency. They might need some services from the Department of Aging, other services from the Department of Health and some other service from the Department of Human Services just to handle one issue.

The Wolf administration believes that consolidating these departments will create a more efficient system in managing the needs of consumers, including older Pennsylvanians.

Representative Pamela DeLissio, of the 194th Legislative District for Montgomery and Philadelphia counties, is optimistic about the Department of Health & Human Services. “Instead of having two or three or four commonwealth agencies, a citizen could come to one door for their needs,” she said. A complaint DeLissio has heard over the years is that consumers often have trouble finding or accessing programs within aging and health services. DeLissio believes the new HHS could alleviate confusion and make services more accessible.

DeLissio adds that “the unification will allow those interagency discussions to happen and allow consumers to navigate services more easily.”

Governor Wolf has reiterated this sentiment, stating that there are “at least 21 separate services across the four agencies [that] provide care for seniors and individuals with physical disabilities. The creation of HHS will eliminate the unnecessary duplication of effort and confusion that currently exists among consumers and their families.” according to the Governor’s Office.

Concerns About Consolidation

Still, many in the aging services field are wary of moving the Department of Aging into a unified HHS. The current Department of Aging receives a large share of its funding from the Pennsylvania Lottery. The Pennsylvania Lottery provides 27% of its proceeds to funding programs and services overseen by the Department of Aging, including long-term living services, senior centers, low-cost prescription drug programs, and transportation services. In 2015-2016, the Lottery Fund totaled $1.12 billion.

Advocates and constituents worry that under a unified HHS, the Lottery Fund could be used to fill budget needs elsewhere in the Department, potentially resulting in less Lottery money being available for aging services.

Advocates have also worried that the consolidation would actually be creating additional bureaucracy, rather than greater efficiency. In testimony delivered to a joint hearing of several Pennsylvania Senate Committees, Diane Menio, Executive Director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE) stated, “Including the Department of Aging in the new HHS will bury the needs of older adults within a behemoth of a bureaucratic agency while saving little in the budget as funding for the department of aging is solely derived from lottery and federal dollars and not from the general fund.”

An earlier draft of the proposed unification came with the loss of the Secretary of Aging as a Cabinet-level position, instead just having a Deputy Secretary within HHS. Many in the aging services field expressed concern over not having a Cabinet member focused on aging issues and with direct access to the Governor.

Following a series of public hearings where this concern was raised, the Wolf administration amended their proposal and added a Commissioner on Aging as a member of the Governor’s Cabinet.

“The Commissioner of Aging will be tasked with advising Gov. Wolf and coordinating commonwealth efforts on issues that impact seniors, and will work with the department to develop the State Plan on Aging and State Plan on Alzheimer’s. The Commissioner will work closely with the Deputy Secretary for Aging & Adult Community Living,” according to the Governor’s Office.

The proposal to create the unified HHS must be approved as legislation by the House and Senate before consolidation can move forward. Republican State Representative Stephen Bloom (Cumberland County) and Democratic Senator Judy Schwank (Berks County) have announced their intent to be the prime sponsors of this bipartisan legislation.

Should the legislation pass, Governor Wolf intends to nominate Teresa Miller as the inaugural Secretary of Health & Human Services. Ms. Miller currently serves as the Pennsylvania Insurance Commissioner.