DHSS director testifies at joint budget hearing about high-risk status
Department of Human and Social Services has passed one hurdle to be removed from the high risk status with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is forging ahead to address the second issue in order be in compliance with USDA regulations.
However, DHSS director Leilua Stevenson said that because USDA also provides funds to the Department of Education’s school lunch program, it’s unclear if DHSS will be given an all clear signal for full removal from USDA high-risk status unless DOE clears its issues with the federal grantor.
Stevenson testified during Tuesday’s Fono Joint Budget hearing on DHSS’ proposal budget for fiscal year 2013. The department is one of the ASG entities fully funded by federal money.
The DHSS director explained that the DHSS’ $23.63 million budget before the Fono “may not reflect the monies that DHSS will receive in FY 2013” and noted the department’s funding each fiscal year depends on Congressional action on the national budget and on administrative allocation of funds to states and territories.
She told the committee DHSS funding comes from a variety of federal agencies and the proposed budget for FY 2013, is about 8% higher then the previous fiscal year.
According to the director, over 35% of the budget funds the WIC program, in which the department anticipates spending $8.3 million to administrate and manage WIC, as well as paying WIC benefits that serves close to 7,000 participants.
Stevenson told the committee that WIC services are currently provided in the main office and at the WIC satellites, located in the community health centers in Amouli and Leone on Tutuila island and in the villages of Fitiuta and Ofu in the Manu’a island group.
“We are looking forward to the reopening of the WIC building [this] Friday and this is the complete reconstruction of the building which costs $1 million,” she explained. “We are also waiting for the Department of Health to complete renovations for the space at the Tafuna Community Health Center, which we will house the third WIC satellite clinic.”
DOH also approved DHSS’ request to put a WIC clinic in the community health center in Tau and in Ofu, she said.
FOOD STAMP PROGRAM - ASNAP PROGRAM
The second largest program is the food stamp program (whose official name is the American Samoa Nutritious Assistant Program), which gets 32% of the budget allocation of the total budget, said Stevenson.
She explained that FY 2013 funding for this program is just over $ 7 million with 4,128 recipients versus the previous year’s recipients of 3,918.
In late 2010, DHSS contracted the services of Cohill Consulting to “conduct a needs assessment” on the food stamp automatic system and the contractor recommended that this program “must have a new and upgraded system” and this was approved by the USDA, she said.
“I make mention of this program, in particular because it is the last remaining requirement for USDA to consider the high-risk designation for this program,” she said. “We are also currently negotiating with the USDA to increase the gross monthly income eligibility to qualify for food stamp benefits.”
“If approved, the gross monthly eligibility level will move from $1,008 to $1, 227 — allowing more people to qualify for the program,” she said.
And, as of Tuesday this week, the food stamp program is working on releasing a one time bonus of $100 for all program participants for the month of September, she said noting that this was approved by USDA and “it’s paid, using approved but unspent funds for the current fiscal year.”
“This amounts to $412,000 in addition to $500,000 for the month of September only, which is close to $900,000 of infusion to our economy,” she declared.
HIGH RISK DESIGNATION
Later in the hearing, when lawmakers were given the chance to asked questions, Rep. Taotasi Archie Soliai inquired to how many programs administered by DHSS are still under high risk, since she become director almost four years ago.
Stevenson explained that the WIC and the food stamp programs were on high risk “and this is because they fall under USDA, who designated DOE as a high risk division, under the school lunch program.”
In the last three years, DHSS “has worked on clearing its own issues to help it be relieved from the high-risk designation,” she said. “The WIC program has fulfilled all the requirements as outlined by the federal government, to clear itself.
“As far as the food stamp program goes, the only remaining item is to ensure that we issue the RFP for the replace of the [automata] system and that is also being done and the deadline is Nov. 14th,” she explained.
“We’re hoping that after USDA sees all these efforts that we’ve put forth, that there would be a decision made. Unfortunately, we fall under the same group with DOE and I don’t know if we will be removed without DOE also clearing its issues,” she said.
“However, I will say that the fact that USDA has allowed for the food stamp program to issue this one time bonus, that they are allowing us to submit a request to increase food stamp benefits, which they would also consider a request eligibility is a very good indication of — like a renewed confidence in the way the program is running,” she said.
CHILD CARE DIVISION
This division represents 12.4% of the department’s budget and in addition to overall delivery “we focus our priorities this year on quality. For example, we have a new system — a biometric system installed in over half of the day care facilities. What this does, it helps improve the accountability of all the children in the program,” she said.
“Additionally, we have nine child care providers, who successfully passed the ASCC placement exam and registered for classes in the Fall,” she said. “What this does, it brings the credentials and allows them to come closer to getting a credentialed for early childhood education. This is part of the child care program in improving the services that we offer.”
She also said that DHSS has worked on the reclassification effort for payroll of all the staff.
“Currently the child care division has been approved for reclassification. The primary purpose of the reclassification was to realign positions within the department, to ensure that all of us doing like — similar jobs are getting paid at the same level,” she pointed out.
Stevenson said the goal is to make sure workers are compensated and to commensurate with the work that they do, their credentials, their background, and their experience.
“This is part of a department-wide effort to ensure fair and equitable treatment in compensation to all personnel,” she said, adding that the next division pending reclassification is Social Service.
SOCIAL SEVICE DIVISION
This division get 9% of the total budget allocation and one of the DHSS’ major priority this year, was the renovation of the Social Service building, which is about 70% complete, resulting in a significant expansion of floor space for additional programs and services.
This project is funded under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money through collaborative efforts with the ASG stimulus office, the Territorial Energy Office and the Department of Public Works for close to $1 million,” she said.