(The Center Square) – The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services said Wednesday the latest federal stimulus package will help it prepare for life beyond the pandemic in the face of rising costs.
“This is going to be huge,” said DHS Secretary Teresa Miller during a budget hearing with the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This is a lot of funding. What we have been doing for awhile now … we want to make sure we have a strong system and supports available after the pandemic.”
Pennsylvania will receive $13 billion in state and local funding from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by Congress on Wednesday. While it’s still unclear how Gov. Tom Wolf and the Legislature will distribute that funding, Miller said prior rounds of federal stimulus helped keep their department afloat.
Now, with a $941 million supplemental budget request on the table, the latest influx of disaster aid could strengthen the system to prepare for the sharp rise in eligible seniors coming over the next five years, she said.
“The CARES Act allowed us to plug some holes and keep some providers in business so that we could continue to serve people … but we need to also think about the fact that this pandemic has been going on a year now and we don’t know how much longer we are going to be in the middle of this,” she said. “And how do we make sure we can support our system and all of our providers so that on the other end we have the strong system that we need to provide services to the people that we serve?”
Miller said DHS services 3 million residents directly, including seniors, those with intellectual and physical disabilities, children, families and low income individuals. She said one quarter of the population the department serves – seniors and the disabled – amount for 71% of its spending.
“I think it’s helpful to understand that our budget growth is primarily the result of increases that we are seeing in our Community Health Choices program, which serves our seniors and people with physical disabilities,” she said.
Last week, the House Appropriations Committee lashed out against the department’s supplemental request as an irresponsible overspend from years of mismanagement that’s increased the budget 40% since Wolf took office in 2015.
Miller defended the request as the result of changing demographics, historic underfunding and pandemic-related expenses. She said the number of residents aged 65 to 74 will rise 33% through 2025. That increase climbs 40% for residents 75-84-years-old, while the share of those 85 and older will increase 9.5%.
She reiterated those points Wednesday before the Senate, too.
“It’s critical to understand that DHS is largely an entitlement agency,” she said. “This means that it’s our obligation to provide the vast majority of the services that we provide to anyone who is eligible for them. And that’s true regardless of how much money we are allocated during the budget process.”
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, agreed that the growth in DHS’s cost stems from many factors beyond Miller’s control, but urged her to instead support policies of economic growth that might help bolster the state’s working age population.
“I hope you will be a voice for pro-growth policies,” she said. “You lending your voice will do more to rectify the challenge that you experience in your budgetary climate more than anything else you could do.”