Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

West Virginia Spent $183M to Help Vulnerable Residents. It’s Not Enough

Despite a high demand for programs that help children, elderly and those with disabilities, lawmakers made wide cuts for fear that the federal government might take back millions in COVID aid.

In Charleston, W.Va., this week, lawmakers spent several days bickering over the details of a funding package to help some of the state's most vulnerable residents.

Back home in legislators' districts across the state, real West Virginians continued to need more help and support.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities languish in state psychiatric institutions. Seniors are forced into nursing homes, instead of living at home. Rural residents can't find mental health or substance use disorder treatment.

Ultimately, lawmakers approved $183 million in new funding aimed at helping these and other West Virginians.

Representatives of groups that help and advocate for those who desperately need those programs were glad to see the money come through. But they also described needs for far more concentrated efforts by lawmakers and agency officials in Charleston to tackle the state's most pressing health crises.

Take, for example, infants and toddlers exposed to drugs in the womb, who are often born premature or with learning disabilities. The program "Birth to Three" helps families learn to care for these kids.

Wendy Altizer, owner of Milestones Physical Therapy, which has clinics in Huntington and Hurricane, said that because state officials haven't granted her Birth to Three workers a raise in two decades, she often loses experienced employees. And they're seeing twice as many kids as they were 20 years ago.

"For every $1 spent on early intervention, we save the education system $7," Altizer said. But, "There are some counties in West Virginia that have zero in-person Birth to Three providers."

Prior to the 2024 legislative session, West Virginia health officials asked Gov. Jim Justice for a significant and urgent increase in funding for programs like Birth to Three that help groups like victims of child abuse and people with disabilities, substance use disorders and mental illnesses.

Justice, who usually touts a tight budget, urged lawmakers to provide the agencies with most of what they asked for.

Lawmakers had other ideas. They significantly cut health funding, citing concerns that the federal government might take back millions of dollars of COVID aid. Legislative leaders promised that, after the federal budget dispute was resolved, the governor would call them back to plug the health agency budget holes.

Lawmakers Fight Over Political Oversight But Don't Tackle Broader Needs

Justice called lawmakers back into session this week, after months of hemming and hawing during his press briefings about needing one to restore the cuts.

But this week's special session nearly ran aground as some lawmakers said they do not trust state officials to spend the money as intended because of how they've handled finances in the past.

House members tried to direct some of the money to certain programs, including restored funding for programs that help seniors and people with disabilities live at home. The Senate rejected that and adjourned, leaving the House little choice but to accept the Senate's version of the bill or send no more funding to the Department of Human Services.

Tensions between the two chambers reached a boiling point Tuesday afternoon, when Senate President Craig Blair, R- Berkeley, corralled Finance Chair Eric Tarr, R- Putnam, and Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R- Kanawha, for an impromptu press conference, where they accused House members of playing politics with people's lives.

"When you're talking about horse trading, to me, this went over the line. You're playing with fire," Takubo said. "It's going to hurt a lot of kids."

As delegates convened across the statehouse to stomach it and vote for a bill they didn't like, Del. Todd Kirby, R- Raleigh, said it was more of the same from the Senate.

"Over these past two years, I've been feeling like I'm living in Groundhog Day," Kirby said. "At the end of every session, whether it's a regular or special session, we sit here picking up the pieces of what's left from the other side of this chamber."

Outside the Capitol, West Virginians Go Without Help

As senators on one side of the state Capitol and delegates on the other lobbed criticism across the building, in-home caregivers gathered in the hallways between them and rallied while they waited for word about their funding.

"Let's show love for the aged," their signs urged.

Some seniors with disabilities who could live at home with help are being confined to nursing homes because of inadequate caregiver pay and turnover, according to one of those rallying, Billie McConnell of the Coordinating Council for Independent Living.

"If the worker leaves the home — and I have nobody to replace them — then the client goes without services," she said.

More than 600 West Virginians with developmental disabilities are on the waiting list for a similar state-funded in-home caregiver program.

Groups that help people with disabilities say they frequently lose employees who've gone without raises for years and there aren't enough workers to meet the need.

And their families need state-funded respite workers to take care of those West Virginians while their caregivers rest, according to Christy Black, advocacy specialist for the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council.

"It's much cheaper for people to be in their own homes and in their communities than us taking care of them in psychiatric facilities," she said.

In Pendleton County, kids have to travel hours for mental health care because Pendleton Community Care has been searching for a counselor for years, according to CEO Jamie Hudson.

In several years, they've only spoken to one person who was interested who got a better offer out of state.

"We pay for a recruiter to try and fill the position," she said.

At the Capitol rally of caregivers, Michelle Pratt, division director for the Coordinating Council for Independent Living, said employees leave and seniors end up in nursing homes.

"We sent messages to all the legislators," said Pratt. "But we haven't heard anything back."

(c)2024 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners