Thursday, April 9

Iowa DHS Head Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place

When Gene Gessow was called on by Governor Chet Culver last fall to head the state's Department of Human Services, he would not have known the misery it could cause him, but he could have guessed given the political football that DHS has been for lawmakers. With a budget shortfall and needs for human services likely to increase for the foreseeable future, it is troubling that Senate Republicans are lining up to block his confirmation. Gessow must receive 34 votes to be confirmed by the 50-member Senate (there are 32 Democrats and 18 Republicans in the Senate).

The DHS, which has 5,700 employees and a $4.6 billion annual budget is in a constant state of flux as Democrats and Republicans play tug o'war with its budget. Understanding this, Gessow wrote in a letter to DHS employees last week that "it is increasingly likely that budget cuts will require the Department of Human Services to significantly change the way we provide services to our customers beginning next fiscal year." This is short-hand for find ways to cut corners.

In an article in today's Des Moines Register, State Senator Jack Hatch said that the DHS may soon have to cut 350 to 500 jobs and services."(Those) are some of the changes we know we will see when we pass this year's tough budget," said Hatch, who is among the lawmakers who set the DHS budget. The DHS is facing an 11.3 percent cut in state money for the next budget year. Federal stimulus money may help, but layoffs and service cuts are still possible, lawmakers said.

However, as an editorial in yesterday's Register points out, "Many federal dollars from the economic-stimulus legislation were intended to protect vulnerable Americans. Dollars were specifically targeted to child welfare, foster care, food stamps and homelessness. State cuts shouldn't result in cutting the very programs and people who serve vulnerable Iowans." For a director of such an agency, he shouldn't have to fight to continue doing his job at the exact time his agency needs a firm hand on the wheel.

Gessow is one of the more experienced human services administrators. He was the state's Medicaid Director and before coming to Iowa, Gessow was the director of Medical Services for the Maine Department of Human Services. He also served as the deputy secretary for finance in New Mexico and the budget director for Massachusetts Medicaid. While he is widely being hammered for the handling of the Attalisa worker situation, the problems there began long before he was appointed. To his credit, Gessow is working with other department leaders to address how to make reasonable regulatory changes.

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