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Delaware Senate Democrats

Sen. Poore proposes committee to examine restructuring DHSS

June 20, 2019

DOVER – Senate Majority Leader Nicole Poore wants to examine the benefits of dividing Delaware’s largest state agency into two cabinet-level departments focused on the core missions of improving health outcomes and serving the state’s most vulnerable residents.

Introduced on Thursday with a bi-partisan slate of cosponsors, Senate Bill 163 would create a committee tasked with determining the best way to reorganize the Department of Health and Social Services, starting as early as 2021.

“DHSS is a massive organization with nearly a dozen divisions and an enormous number of responsibilities, each vital to the health, safety and welfare of our state,” said Poore, D-New Castle. “Given our state’s strong financial position, we should be doing more than just adding funding to the status quo. We need to take a hard look at how we can provide the best service possible.”

Created in 1970, DHSS has grown over the decades to include a wide-ranging mission that now touches on everything from controlling health-care costs and battling addiction to collecting child support payments, providing support services for the elderly and overseeing animal control throughout the state.

The roughly $1.2 billion state-funded annual cost to operate DHSS now accounts for about $3 out of every $10 the state spends each year, while the staff of the agency’s 11 divisions make up about a quarter of all state positions unrelated to education.

“The department is to be commended for keeping a handle on its original mission of advancing policy that benefits the public health and its ever-expanding mandate to also provide individualized care to Delawareans,” Poore said. “But this is an idea that has been discussed for nearly 20 years under three different governors. The time has come for us to seriously consider how our residents might be better served by two state agencies, each more nimble and narrowly focused on the task at hand.”

Most states avoid the central-agency model in favor of multiple health-related agencies with shared goals yet distinct functions. The model proposed by Sen. Poore is more closely aligned to the format used by New Jersey and Rhode Island, a state of a similar size to Delaware. Both of those states divide parallel functions between a Department of Health and a Department of Human Services.

Larger states such as Pennsylvania and Maryland tend to split those functions three ways with the addition of a Department of Aging.

Understanding that enacting a similar model in Delaware would require serious planning and consideration, Poore has proposed creating an 11-member body to study the potential impacts on Delaware residents and the state budget. The DHSS Reorganization Committee would be required to report on its progress next year and submit a final implementation plan by early 2021.

“Delaware should never stop looking for new ways to best serve our most vulnerable populations,” Poore said. “And as we continue to grow as a state, it makes sense for us re-examine this agency and look at ways we can improve that service delivery for our residents.”

Relocating existing functions under new agencies is nothing new in state government, particularly when it comes to DHSS.

First established during a comprehensive reorganization of state government about 50 years ago, DHSS initially was created to oversee four divisions and three offices. It then gave birth to the Department of Correction in 1975, while the Department of Children, Youth and their Families was formed from agencies spun out of DHSS, DOC and Family Court in 1983.

Since its creation, Delaware’s population has grown by more than 75 percent to almost a million people. The needs of those residents also has grown more complex and costly, along with the demands of state and federal regulations surrounding services for the elderly, indigent, people with disabilities and those suffering from addiction.

“DHSS provides valuable, needed services to Delawareans throughout our state. That work is both vital and admirable,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, a prime sponsor of the bill. “This committee would look at restructuring the department to help further its mission and strengthen its goals of supporting the health and welfare of Delawareans.”

SB 163 has been placed in the Senate Elections, Government and Community Affairs Committee.