Gov. Tom Wolf's administration notified state officials and employees Friday afternoon that he wants to consolidate four state agencies into a single department as the first-term Democratic governor deals with a massive budget deficit and a Republican-controlled Legislature averse to raising taxes.
The move — merging the departments of Human Services, Health, Aging and Drug and Alcohol Programs into one Department of Health and Human Services — would require approval from the Legislature.
The details on the move were scant on Friday, in terms of how much money it would save and how many employees might lose their jobs. Wolf's office said it would provide more information Monday.
State employees were notified in an email Friday afternoon from the top officials in each of the four agencies. In it, they said they had worked to identify "operational silos" and program duplication among agencies and rethink how services are delivered to millions of people.
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Consolidation, they wrote, would "dramatically improve our ability to deliver services that will improve lives."
The agencies have a wide range of responsibilities, including administering the state's $20-plus billion Medicaid program, distributing aid to programs for the disabled, developing policy to fight the state's drug addiction crisis and inspecting nursing homes and hospitals.
House Human Services Committee Chairman Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said he was willing to listen to the details. But he also said he was unhappy about elements of it, seven years after legislation he authored had created the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs because he felt it was buried too deep in the bureaucracy of another agency to adequately respond to the growing addiction crisis.
"You've got to show me why you're doing this," DiGirolamo said. "Are you going to save money? Is there duplication from one department to the other? Are you going to create efficiencies? Put it on paper and show me why. Just doing it for the sake of doing it is not a good idea."
The Legislature's huge Republican majorities have rebuffed Wolf's efforts the past two years to wipe out Pennsylvania's persistent post-recession deficit with a broad tax increase, preferring one-time stopgaps.
In December, Wolf vowed to produce a balanced budget plan that instead relies heavily on cuts and savings measures. He is scheduled to deliver his new budget plan to the Legislature on Feb. 7.
Legislative budget analysts say consolidating agencies may mean some savings or help the state qualify for more federal program aid. But it will not put much of a dent in the nearly $3 billion projected budget gap the state is facing, they say.
A move to consolidate the four agencies had been rumored in the Capitol in recent days. The agencies house some similar or shared programs, including funding long-term care services for the elderly and behavioral health treatment.
Estelle Richman, who spent seven years as secretary of what is now named the Department of Human Services under Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, said such a plan could save money in the long run, but improving services should be the primary motivation to do it.
Many other states operate health and human services programs as a single agency, said Joan Benso, president of the Harrisburg-based non-profit organization Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Previous attempts to consolidate programs within the Department of Human Services have been successful, Benso said.
Consolidation may take more than a year, she said.