Unspent funds in DSS programs draw sharp questions

In a tough budget year, some agencies might win praise for underspending their budgets–but not the Department of Social Services, which is nearing the end of the fiscal year with large surpluses in programs for a range of vulnerable populations.

“What it does, it exemplifies that we have holes in our services all around the state,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

Walker said she will be seeking answers today from the department’s new leadership about why DSS failed to spend tens of million in funds budgeted for subsidies of elder home care, child care and services for the homeless.

Last week, the Department of Social Services won permission from the Finance Advisory Committee to use $196 million in unspent funds to make up deficiencies in other programs, with all but $2 million going to Medicaid. The fiscal year ends June 30.

Walker and her co-chairwoman, Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said the surpluses were stunning at a time when the economy is stagnant and demands for some social service programs, such as food stamps, clearly are high.

The department has insufficient staff to keep some offices open five days a week, yet it is reporting a $2.4 million surplus in its payroll account, Walker said.

“It just boggles the mind,” Harp said.

The new commissioner, Roderick L. Bremby, listened last week as Walker, Harp and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said that the surpluses raised questions about the management of the department and its $6 billion budget.

The department oversees nearly a third of the state budget, and the $2.4 million surplus in personal services represents less than 2.2 percent of the $110 million it was expected to spend on salaries this year.

Bremby told the legislators after the meeting that he heard their concerns, Walker said. He declined to be interviewed.

“He just completed his first 30 days and, it’s safe to say, is assessing the entirety of operations here, including expenditure trends,” said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the department.

The biggest transfer of funds approved last week is a reflection of a policy change, not poor planning, officials said.

The department shifted $141 million from the State Administered General Assistance program to Medicaid, because Medicaid was expanded to provide medical care for low-income adults on general assistance.

But Walker said the other surpluses were perplexing.

The department is projecting a $4.5 million surplus for child care. Earlier this year, the department tightened access to subsidized child care, fearing it was headed toward a shortfall of $4.5 million.

“We have people crying for child care,” Walker said.

Its $50 million homeless services account is expected to end the year with a $2.7 million surplus, which officials attribute to some clients being unable to afford a security deposit even after they are awarded a certificate for housing assistance.

One of the bigger surpluses is the $24 million projected for the $55.6 million Connecticut Home Care Program, which provides a range of services intended to help the elderly remain in their homes.

The program used to be free, but cost-sharing was initiated in 2009. Fees began at 15 percent of the costs, then dropped to 6 percent. It is scheduled to rise to 7 percent in the proposed budget for the next two years.

“With cost sharing requirements, clients appear to be taking a harder look at their service plans in an effort to reduce their cost share, with a corresponding savings to the state as a result,” DSS said its submission to the Finance Advisory Committee.

Harp and Walker told Bremby they want the department to determine if the elderly are dropping unnecessary services or are going without to save money.

The department said one explanation may be cost-shifting as some clients seem to be applying to Medicaid to avoid the cost-sharing. Medicaid now offers a similar Personal Care Assistant program that is free to eligible clients.

Officials said they also believe that a $3 million surplus in the ConnPACE program for subsidized prescription drugs for the elderly is attributable to a shift to the federally funded Medicare Part D program for drug coverage.

Despite high unemployment, the department is projecting a $12 million surplus in the Temporary Family Assistance account, due to a caseload of 20,609, which is 14 percent below expected levels.

It is assumed the extension of unemployment benefits to 99 weeks has taken some pressure off the family-assistance program, which provides cash assistance, the department said.

The food stamp program is running an $80,000 deficiency despite complaints it was understaffed and too slow to sign up eligible applicants.

Cases have risen from 370 in June of last year to 509 in March, a jump of 38 percent.