Share This Page

Pa. welfare chief wields $400 million ax

HARRISBURG -- Department of Public Welfare Secretary Gary D. Alexander is on a hunt.

His agency needs to cut $400 million in costs, and legislators gave him broad -- some say unprecedented -- power to do so.

"The biggest challenge is getting it done in an expedited manner," Alexander, 42, the former secretary of Rhode Island's human services agency, told the Tribune-Review on Wednesday.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett tapped Alexander in January to head the agency, which oversees about $27 billion in federal and state spending.

Republicans long have complained about "fraud, waste and abuse" at the agency. But people receiving benefits could find them curtailed or eliminated, or could face higher co-payments. About 2.3 million low-income Pennsylvanians receive Medicaid health insurance. As of May, records show 287,113 Pennsylvanians receive cash assistance, and 1.7 million individuals, or 834,761 households, receive SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

Legislation approved last week requires the department "to dramatically increase child care co-payments, cut Medicaid benefits, change the rules for welfare-to-work programs to eliminate training and educational programs, and reduce eligibility for benefits," said Richard P. Weishaupt, senior attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. The law makes no provision for legislative oversight, nor opportunity for public comment, he said.

Alexander said the public will be included and informed. Yet he can make changes without legislative approval or OK from the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, which typically holds hearings and examines state rules. Some changes might require federal approval, he said.

The Special Allowance program that provides cash assistance to welfare recipients seeking employment "certainly will be modified," Alexander said. A 2009 state audit found 45 percent of that program's payments were unjustified, though he said he does not know how it might have changed since then.

The bill defined some cuts -- for example, authorizing a co-pay for Medicaid coverage for disabled children when their families earn too much to qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Lawmakers clearly have "a sense of urgency" about cutting welfare costs, Alexander said. They gave him one year to identify savings.

Some Democrats warn the law gives Alexander unprecedented power.

"I think the thing that bothers me the most is the Legislature has abandoned a portion of its power to a non-elected official," said Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "We've given the secretary ... unprecedented discretion."

Alexander believes the General Assembly and former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell in 2005 set precedent by giving then-Secretary Estelle Richman similar discretion. Rendell urged her to cut $500 million in Medicaid, the health insurance program for low-income people. The agency axed about $350 million.

"At that time, they were more specific," Markosek argued. "And that agreement was among all four (legislative political) caucuses. This is something that was done by the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate.

"Nobody's for waste," he said. "Every legislator wants to cut out fraud and abuse. But they have embellished the number, and they are going to have to cut vital services to do that."

According to Markosek's staff, about $250 million of the $400 million in suggested cuts are unspecified in any detail.

Democratic Auditor General Jack Wagner said yesterday that his audits of the agency show it could save $400 million. Without knowing details, Wagner, a former senator, said he could not determine whether lawmakers gave Alexander too much power.

"It's not as if we've made him king of the department for the next year," said House Republican Policy Chairman Dave Reed of Indiana County, who has spearheaded welfare reforms.

Although the Legislature hoped to identify savings for the current budget, it also wants to restore public confidence in the system -- by making sure the truly needy get benefits and those "taking advantage of it are kicked off," Reed said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.