Thursday, April 11, 2013

Department of Human Services bogged down by big caseloads

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois Department of Human Services is struggling to provide services as some workers face caseloads of more than a thousand people.

Michelle Saddler, the agency's director, said that the department is understaffed. “Many of you have probably heard DHS is behind or DHS has a backlog,” she told a House human services budget committee today. “We at DHS overall need more realistic staffing.” The department is asking for $3.6 billion for fiscal year 2014, the same amount proposed under Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget. DHS is expected to spend more than $3.2 billion this fiscal year. The department was cut by almost $150 million under the current fiscal year’s budget.

Linda Saterfield, director of the division of family and community services at DHS, said some of her caseworkers have caseloads as big as 2,600. “If you calculate that out, that leaves that worker less than 45 minutes over the course of a year to serve that family.” The average caseload in the division, which administers such core safety net programs as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, averages more than 900 cases per worker. That compares with the year 2000, when the average was just under 250 cases per worker. Saterfield said that one in four residents are served through one of the division’s programs. “Our caseload has grown dramatically, but our staffing levels have reduced so much that we are unable to adequately meet the needs for services,” she said.

Kevin Casey, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities at DHS, said there are about 11,000 people with developmental disabilities waiting for services in Illinois. He said the wait time can be up to four years. “It really is a struggle to understand how they get from one day to another at times,” Casey told the committee. He said the department does have a plan to reduce the number of people on the wait list over the next few years. Casey told committee members that he would later calculate what it would cost to address the wait list immediately. “It’s a choker of a number. It would take a good deal of money to serve everyone on that waiting list.”

Theodora Binion, acting director of the Division of Mental Health at DHS, said that more than 80 percent of people in need of mental health services are not receiving them. “Eighty percent of the people who need mental health services aren’t getting them? Something fundamentally is wrong with that system,” said Rep. David Leitch, who serves on the committee. Leitch said that he thinks lawmakers should prioritize mental health funding over other requests the department might have. “To overlook this, to me, is quite a crisis. I think we should as a committee take a very hard look [at it] before we add a lot of new employees at DHS and do some of the other things.” Binion said steps are being taken to serve more people through managed care programs. “I think that there are plans afoot to increase the capacity.” (For more on the lack of funding for mental health care in the state, see Illinois Issues March 2013.

One factor in the department’s struggle to administer services to people in need is increased demand. “One in three people in Illinois are living in poverty or teetering on the edge of poverty,” said Samantha Tuttle, the director of policy for the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights. The alliance is an anti-poverty organization that tracks statistics across the state. Tuttle said the state is not doing enough to combat poverty growth. “Illinois has taken steps backwards in addressing poverty, and it shows.” She said recent cuts in virtually every area of human services have given the poor few places to turn. “Taken together, they’re really a dismantling of our safety net system that helps mitigate the experiences of people living in poverty and moves people out of poverty.”

While the DHS is asking for a funding increase, in part to pay for additional staffing, Saddler said she is aware that lawmakers are facing big budget issues. “We understand that we are all under the pressure of the large pension crisis and that that must be dealt with.” Saddler said the department is doing its best during a difficult time to care for Illinoisans. “If DHS cannot be run on a culture of caring, then who can? Every time that we find that we’ve done something that’s not caring, we pick ourselves up and try again.”


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