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State official urges fight against $500M in welfare cuts

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By Bill Zlatos
Saturday, April 25, 2009

As demand for social services mounts with the recession, the state Department of Public Welfare is trying to plug a potential $500 million hole in its budget next year and is urging residents and agencies to fight any cuts.

"They (legislators) are looking at cutting," said Estelle B. Richman, Pennsylvania secretary of Public Welfare. "If they don't hear from you, they figure they can cut that because no one came in to talk about it."

Richman and Mary A. Soderberg, Pennsylvania's secretary of the Budget, discussed the state budget Friday in a briefing before 100 residents and representatives of social service agencies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Between July and March, Richman said, the recession has dragged state revenues $1.6 billion below projections. Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed budget would reduce the state money for public welfare from the $10 billion to $8 billion next fiscal year.

The federal stimulus package will narrow but not fill the gap, Richman said.

It would provide $4 billion over 27 months.

Meanwhile, the demand for services is rising.

The number of Pennsylvanians relying on Medicaid has increased from about 1.4 million in fiscal 1999 to a projected 2 million next fiscal year. During the same period, the number of residents getting food stamps has grown from about 800,000 to nearly 1.3 million.

"My biggest concerns are hospitals," Richman said. "They're feeling the pressure in their emergency rooms."

Nationwide, 4.8 million Americans lost their jobs, including 2 million in the first quarter of the year. Those Americans lost not only their paychecks, but their medical insurance benefits.

At the end of December, 145,800 unemployed people were on a waiting list for state-supported health insurance through the state Department of Insurance. In January, 183,000 people signed up for the program. The state estimates that by June an additional 100,000 people will sign up.

Only 46,543 state residents were enrolled in the program as of December. Soderberg noted the governor's budget would more than double that figure to 90,000 by the end of the 2009-10.

Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny Department of Human Services, reported a "huge" demand for services -- especially for residents who are mentally retarded and those released from jail.

"We find over and over again, when you help a person coming out, they have a shot at a productive life, which improves public safety," Cherna said.

United Way of Allegheny County and The Pittsburgh Foundation launched Neighbor-Aid earlier this year to address human service needs here.

"We're seeing people looking for help with basics -- food, shelter, utilities, transportation," said Robert Nelkin, president and chief professional officer of the local United Way chapter.

He said Neighbor-Aid has raised nearly $1 million. Of that, $785,000 has been distributed to local agencies.

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