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Budgeters push permanent merger of health, family services

The Joint Appropriations Committee voted last week to sponsor a bill making permanent a temporary merger of the Wyoming Department of Health and the Department of Family Services.

The Department of Family Services was placed under the control of Department of Health director Tom Forslund in June, when the DFS director resigned. At the time, Forslund told the Casper Star-Tribune he would look at whether a permanent merger of the two made sense. His staff has decided it does, he told lawmakers on the JAC on Jan. 10.

The merger would create opportunities for savings and efficiencies by melding the support staff behind the two agencies. There was no discussion of whether jobs would be reduced through the merger. Nor is there any current estimate of how much taxpayer money could be saved, House Appropriations Chairman Bob Nicholas told WyoFile.

Forslund also said he believed the two agencies’ clients would benefit. Many people who are served by one agency are also served by the other, Forslund said. He estimated the overlap in clients at more than 80 percent, as both agencies frequently focus on assisting low-income Wyoming residents. For example, someone receiving services from DFS is probably also a Medicaid client, Forslund said.

The JAC voted nearly unanimously to support the bill, but other lawmakers outside the committee may not back the endeavor. While the JAC approached the bill from the perspective of budget writers, two other committees — the Joint Judiciary Committee and the Joint Labor and Health Committee — oversee the two agencies’ effectiveness. The judiciary committee focuses on some of the enforcement policies DFS must deal with.

There could be concerns from those committee members, the House Labor and Health Committee Chairman Eric Barlow told JAC. Barlow said his Senate co-chairman, longtime Sen. Charles Scott, disliked the idea. One worry he and Scott shared was proper support for DFS caseworkers, who must engage with people on child custody and other difficult family issues, Barlow said. It’s “the toughest job in state government,” he said.

Trimming government

The Department of Health is an agency giant, with the state’s largest budget according to the Governor’s 2019-2020 budget letter. The state has too many agencies, Forslund said, which makes the governor’s oversight more difficult than if agencies were centralized under single heads. Forslund has run DOH for seven years, but his tenure will end in January 2019, with that of Gov. Matt Mead, he told the lawmakers.

While approving the merger, Forslund said both agencies will continue to function regardless of what route lawmakers take. “At the end of the day, it’s a policy call,” he said. “It’ll work either way. But I think right now the structure of the state government is large and for a small state we’ve got a lot of agencies.”

The Legislature has been pursuing efficiency studies to reduce the size and cost of Wyoming’s government. The Legislature’s Management Council, made up of top lawmakers from both parties and houses, is considering a bill to act on the preliminary recommendations of the Wyoming Government Spending and Efficiency Commission. That commission, of lawmakers and private citizens, was formed at the end of the 2017 legislative session. Their report included a recommendation to consider merging DOH and DFS.

While supporting the efficiency study, Mead also pointed out in his budget letter that the state budget is $400 million less than it was at the start of his terms.

 

The Department of Health’s report on the proposed merger is provided below:

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected], follow him @AndrewGraham88

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