Governor announces plans to combine four state health agencies

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Call it addition by subtraction.

Governor Tom Wolf, in an attempt to save money and "reduce red tape", announced plans on Monday to consolidate four state health departments into one.

The administration hopes to open a new budget season on July 1 by combining the Departments of Health, Human Services, Aging, and Drug & Alcohol, to form one super-department called Health and Human Services.

Talks of consolidation have been taking place since August. Its formation is pending approval of the governor's upcoming budget, scheduled for announcement in eight days, on Tuesday, February 8.

In the rollout of information, Wolf released a statement, saying the new department will "promote more effective collaboration and service delivery, enhance program effectiveness, and eliminate duplicative processes."

No programs will be cut for Pennsylvanians, Wolf says, and the state's fight against the opioid epidemic will become more efficient.

"We (currently) have a lot of agencies working in similar ways to address the epidemic," said Sarah Galbally, the governor's policy director. "Bringing them under one umbrella will allow us to improve the response to the epidemic."

According to Wolf, the consolidation of the Department of Aging will have no impact on Pennsylvania Lottery funds going towards the state's senior citizens.

How much the consolidation will cost against the 2017-18 budget will be announced in Wolf's address, Galbally said. It is also currently unknown if the consolidation will lead to job loss within those four departments. Galbally said any staff reduction "would be minimal if at all."

State lawmakers have been largely kept in the dark on details of the restructuring, but Democrats and Republicans alike are open to anything to address the state's budgetary issues.

"We have a crisis with how we fund government," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). "We have to turn it into an opportunity. It may allow us to find additional savings to what the governor talked about."

Costa says one of his biggest concerns is potential job loss, saying "a lot of folks are anxious," about its potential.

Jake Corman (R-Centre), the Senate Majority Leader, says he is applauding Governor Wolf's new idea to cut state government. However, before he knows more information, he cannot fully support the plan.

"Just because we have one big department as opposed to four smaller ones doesn't mean it will work better," Corman said. "The Department of Human Services is already fairly large. To increase it by this amount, is it going to be bogged down in bureaucracy in one big department or will it operate efficiently?"

As of Monday, no positions inside the new department, including a secretary or deputies, have been assigned, according to Galbally. All three full-time secretaries are on board with the move. Gary Tennis, the former director of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Services, no longer works in the Wolf administration, as of last week.

"Consolidation puts the focus where it always should be -- on the consumer," said Secretary of Human Services Ted Dallas in a prepared statement. "The Governor's plan to create HHS will result in a more streamlined and cost-effective agency that delivers better services for Pennsylvania."