Health agency consolidation can succeed - with support

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

When a dad drops off his daughter at a child care center, he wants the center to be up to state standards, regardless of which agency does the inspections. When a sick child uses the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to see a pediatrician, she just wants to feel better, regardless of which state agency processes her CHIP application.

But to ensure our child care centers are safe, our children can see a doctor, and numerous services efficiently serve Texas families, state officials now need to successfully manage the consolidation of many state health and human services programs under a new roof.

During the recent legislative session, state lawmakers gave our health and human services agencies a difficult task. The Legislature directed them to consolidate the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) under the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) by September 2017. By September 2016, certain functions in those agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), and the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) have to move to HHSC or other agencies. We expressed our concerns about the consolidation plan during the legislative session, but it’s now time for us all to work together to make it as successful as possible.

As agencies plan and execute these transitions, they should strive to improve efficiency and save taxpayers money. But avoiding disruptions to services — and ideally improving them — should be a top priority. Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) leaders, for example, currently housed at DARS, must ensure that children under age three with disabilities and developmental delays continue to receive help learning to swallow their food, communicate with their parents, prepare for school and meet other goals. Child Protective Services (CPS) officials and their supervisors at DFPS, to give another example, must ensure that the transfer of certain prevention services to DFPS does not distract from the hard work of protecting children, improving the health of children in foster care and keeping families safely together. To evaluate the transition, state agencies must track performance and publicize the impact of these and other services on the lives of Texans during and beyond the consolidation process.

State agencies will need support to deliver these services effectively and successfully manage the transition. The legislative committee overseeing consolidation and other stakeholders should serve as partners to the officials managing this challenging task. Agency leaders have a valuable potential resource in the expertise and experiences of families who rely on the services, community organizations that deliver services, and the policy experts who study and monitor the services. State officials must ensure that these and other interested Texans have the latest information about proposed changes and opportunities to weigh in.

One way HHSC has started to do that is by collecting public input on the fate of 132 different advisory committees. Stakeholders were invited to respond to the agency’s preliminary recommendations to continue the Texas School Health Advisory Committee, for example; merge some entities, such as the Council on Children Families, with other groups; and discontinue several others, such as the Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Task Force. By November 1, it will finish reviewing the comments it received and publish the new advisory committees plan. After that, the next significant step requiring transparency and stakeholder input is the development of the draft agency transformation plan to deliver to the Legislative Oversight Committee at the beginning of January.

Texans who are seeking information about this process and opportunities to comment can start on HHSC’s transformation website, hhsc.state.tx.us/hhs-transformation. In addition to keeping the website updated, we urge the agency and the Legislature to continue working to inform the public about proposed changes and opportunities to provide feedback.

Focusing on the needs of families and actively engaging Texans with valuable insights will make the health and human services consolidation process more successful. At the end of the day, however, we will be want to see that children and families experience more efficient and higher quality services than ever before.

Stephanie Rubin is CEO for Texans Care for Children.