The new director of the state Human Services Department presented to legislators the details of a restructuring plan that is designed to make business operations more efficient.
The expectation is that the changes will save money and allow caseworkers more time to perform their duties helping people in need.
DHS is the single largest state agency, both in number of employees and in the amount of tax dollars it administers. About 7,000 people work at the department and its annual budget is about $8 billion in state and federal funding.
The director told lawmakers that when she first took the job she discovered morale was poor throughout the agency, and the staff turnover rate is 22 percent. The turnover rate is even greater among the high stress positions at the Division of Children and Family Services, which investigates allegations of abuse and neglect of children and recruits foster families.
Performing routine administrative chores adds to the stress and the turnover rate, and the constant need to train new workers strains the division's resources.
The reorganization of DHS will begin July 1, the first day of the 2017 state fiscal year. It will combine financial, administrative, human resources and computer services that are now spread out among the department's 10 divisions. The unification of support services should save money and will allow the divisions' employees to concentrate on their core missions.
Besides children and family services, other divisions administer long-term care facilities for people with disabilities and nursing homes for senior citizens, Medicaid, food stamps, mental health care and help for troubled adolescents.
During her presentation, the department director specifically addressed an area that has long frustrated legislators - expensive contracts with information technology firms to create a computer system that will verify whether or not applicants are eligible for Medicaid.
The department went through several vendors, the cost to taxpayers greatly exceeded original estimates and meanwhile a backlog of more than 110,000 applications piled up.
The DHS director, who took the job on March 1, called the situation unacceptable and told lawmakers that the department will ask for approval to contract with a firm that has worked in other states on computerized verification systems.
Her plan also includes having current contractors increase the number of staff dedicated to eliminating the backlog. A call center that takes questions from people asking about applying for Medicaid will extend its hours, closing at 7:30 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. DHS officials hope to eliminate the backlog of Medicaid applicants by the end of this year.
According to the report to legislators, 635,000 Arkansas receive traditional Medicaid services and another 292,000 Arkansas residents are eligible for the "private option" program, under which Medicaid subsidizes their private health insurance.
DHS will not automatically renew 17 contracts with private vendors when they expire at the end of the year, the director said. If feasible, department staff will take on duties or the contracts will be re-written to increase the financial benefits for the state.
The director said that with the growth of the health care industry nationwide, people who understand Medicaid financing are in greater demand than ever. The demand is not only from government agencies in other states but also from private consulting and health care companies.