More cuts could be coming to Idaho health and welfare offices as state budget cuts are reviewed on services for those hit hardest by the recession. Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) Director Richard Armstrong told lawmakers Tuesday that the Friday afternoon office closures that begin this week are just the beginning.
“We will probably have to look at closure of some offices,” Armstrong said. “At some point, your system can’t operate if you have too many people gone on furlough.” Armstrong told lawmakers that he’s made efforts to improve productivity and efficiency, but that lines at health offices continue to break monthly records. He said some offices are turning off their phones late in the afternoon to ease their end-of-day backlog. Caseloads for food stamps, Medicaid, child support, substance abuse, and other DHW programs have gone up during the past three years.
The recommendations for DHW’s next budget from Gov. Butch Otter include an overall 4.8 percent increase to DHW from its current appropriation, but that increase only covers more payouts for benefits. Personnel costs are taking a 4.6 percent cut. “There will some services that will have to be discontinued,” Armstrong said. “I think we all realize that these budget figures are more than just numbers. They represent our core values of state government. A good government, at its core, protects the most vulnerable among us.”
Republican leaders on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) asked Armstrong if there were other savings besides reducing services. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said the efficiencies spurred by the recession have been a silver lining for state government. “I’d challenge you to look at ways that we can provide those services at a more efficient mechanism,” Cameron told Armstrong. Cameron also said that the latest round of cuts could grow if recent tax revenue numbers remain low. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, asked Armstrong if DHW could lower employee salaries, much like Idaho businesses have.
“I would resist any reduction in salary,” Armstrong said. He said that salaries at DHW are 15 percent below the market rate, and that turnover in some areas is above what he’d like. “The health care industry hasn’t really rolled back salaries,” he said. “What we’ll find is that the private sector will respond, our employees will leave, and we will be subject to an even higher employee turnover rate.”
Democrats on JFAC said that public health service cuts should be avoided. “When we say we don’t have any alternative but to cut, I think we’re being disingenuous,” Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said. She called potential cuts sobering, and said lawmakers should find a way to pay for the increased demand. “I think we really do need to have a discussion about taxes.”
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