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Opposition to Department of Aging Merger

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Pennsylvania legislators are currently considering Governor Wolf’s proposal to merge four Pennsylvania human service agencies. The Governor would like to consolidate the current Departments of Aging (PDA), Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP), Health (DOH), and Human Services (DHS) into a unified Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

In recent weeks legislators have heard testimony from Wolf Administration officials offering support for consolidation, and from groups and individuals who expressed various degrees of opposition. Many of the concerns relate to the impact of the merger on the Department of Aging.

The Pennsylvania Department of Aging (PDA) has a 40 year history in Pennsylvania. In 1973 an amendment to the federal Older American’s Act required states to establish Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) to provide programs and services for older adults. In response Pennsylvania established a network of county or non-profit based local agencies. In 1978 the Legislature established the PDA as a cabinet level position.

The PDA currently has 117 employees. The agency coordinates and funds a broad range of programs and services that benefit older (age 60 and over) Pennsylvanians and their families and caregivers. Most of these services are made available through the 52 local AAAs. About 2/3rds of the PDA funding to local AAAs comes from the Pennsylvania lottery.

The Wolf Administration states that consolidation of PDA with other human services agencies makes sense “in order to promote more effective collaboration and service delivery, enhance program effectiveness, and eliminate duplicative processes.” Seniors could benefit from having a single agency as their point of contact for state provided health and human services. The hope is that consolidation will reduce complexity and confusion for seniors and individuals with disabilities by providing one door to needed services instead of several. Consolidation has the potential to reduce red tape for providers. And it should result in modest, but ongoing cost savings. For more on the Administration’s rationales, see the Governor’s press release here. The Administration has posted updated information on its “unification” proposal here.

Many organizations across the state have expressed reservations about the merger of the PDA into the new DHHS super-agency. Organizations testifying about concerns with this aspect of the proposal have included the PA Association of Area Agencies on Aging (P4A), the Center for the Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), the Southwestern Pennsylvania Partnership for Aging (SWPPA). The Pennsylvania Association of Elder Law Attorneys, of which I am a past President, has come out against including the PDA in the consolidation. A number of legislators have also expressed reservations.

Here are some of the concerns being raised:

Loss of a cabinet level voice advocating for seniors. Since 1978 Pennsylvania seniors have had cabinet level representation. As expressed by House Aging and Older Adult Services Chairman Tim Hennessey at a House Appropriations Committee meeting: “What position do you think would be the most effective advocate for the elderly: a cabinet secretary sitting beside other cabinet secretaries with the governor; or a deputy secretary three levels down from the governor, as the consolidation plan proposes?”

Buried in Bureaucracy. Aging may get lost in the large DHS dominated super-agency bureaucracy. It could get “buried in bureaucracy” according to Representative Gene DiGirolamo, chair of the Human Services Committee. Aging has only 117 employees compared with the 17,000 total projected employees of DHHS.

Potential reduction in lottery funding. As we often see noted in its advertising, proceeds from the Pennsylvania lottery go to support programs benefiting older residents. The PDA and AAAs use lottery funds for senior centers and meals, low cost prescription assistance (PACE and PACEnet), transportation, property tax and rent rebates, home and community based services and other care related services. They fund education and outreach activities, ombudsman services, protective services, family caregiver supports, the nursing home transition program and the OPTIONS program.

Approximately 78 percent of PDA funding comes from the Pennsylvania Lottery with the other 22 percent being derived from federal funds. The lottery funds are used by the PDA and AAAs to benefit older adults who are not on Medicaid. As described by Rebecca May-Cole, Executive Director of P4A, “the typical senior receiving services through an AAA is a 79-year-old widowed female living just above the poverty level; she is not eligible for Medicaid, but also has a very limited income.”

But lottery funds can also be distributed to the Department of Human Services and used to fund the state’s share of the cost of Medicaid long term care services. In other words, the lottery funds can be used to replace General Funds. The fear is that after consolidation lottery funding will be diverted from the PDA and AAAs to DHS and used reduce state General Fund outlays for Medicaid.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As noted by Chairman Hennessey there is no need to include the PDA in the DHHS merger because PDA already functions smoothly. DHS, on the other hand, has a recent record of failure with its assumption of handling enrollment in the Aging Waiver program. In 2016 the enrollment functions of the PDA Waiver program were removed from AAAs and outsourced by DHS to a private company. The transition was poorly implement and the failure has delayed critically needed services for untold numbers of seniors. This recent misadventure casts doubt on the ability of a DHS controlled super-agency to oversee PDA functions.

Conflicts of Interest: There are potential conflicts of interest in having one super-agency (DHHS) handling federally funded programs which require separation of function. For example, is it appropriate to have the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program (currently a PDA function) housed with the same agency charged with nursing home licensing and enforcement? Would this violate the federally mandated independence of the Ombudsman?  

Lack of Stakeholder Input: The consolidation proposal was developed without meaningful external stakeholder input.

Lack of adequate study: There has been no study to determine if the consolidation makes sense. More study should be required before moving forward with its implementation.

For all of these reasons legislative approval of the proposed consolidation seems to be in doubt. We may learn its fate in the next few months. If you want to provide your legislators with your opinion on the merger you can find their names and contact information here.

A video of the April 17, 2017 Joint House Aging and Older Adult Services, Health, and Human Services Committees hearing on the consolidation is available here.