The Delaware Senate passed a resolution June 27 that calls for a team of lawmakers and health policy experts to examine a possible, future restructuring of the Department of Health and Social Services.

Passed by a vote of 18-2, the legislation directs the 17-member DHSS Reorganization Committee to seek out input from Delawareans whose lives are affected by the agency as they work to craft recommendations for how the department can provide services to those vulnerable populations in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

“As the largest agency in state government, DHSS touches the lives of thousands of people every day,” said prime sponsor Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle. “As their needs change, so too must this massive state agency whose central mission is to protect their well-being. This working group will allow us to engage with our seniors, people with disabilities, their families and others to determine how we provide the best services possible. Because at the end of the day, if we, as policy makers and elected officials, are not listening to them and adapting to their needs, we are not fulfilling our mission of representing the people who count on us to be their voice and champion their cause.”

The resolution passed by the Senate is the product of numerous conversations between lawmakers and Gov. John Carney’s administration. Those talks yielded a working group nearly identical to what Poore had set in Senate Bill 163 with even more seats on the committee for advocacy groups and state experts, as requested by the governor’s office.

The resolution calls on the committee to issue its final list of recommendations by March 31, 2020.

“Our DHSS Secretary and employees are doing great work for our state,” said Carney. “They have a tough job, running our largest department with all of its diverse responsibilities. It makes sense to look at how the department is meeting its mission to serve some of our state’s most vulnerable populations. We all want to do the best job we can, and we’re always looking to do our jobs more effectively. I look forward to reviewing the recommendations of this task force as it looks for ways to improve service delivery and better meet the needs of the Delawareans that DHSS serves.”

Created in 1970, DHSS has grown 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.

Most states avoid that kind of central-agency model in favor of multiple health-related agencies with shared goals, but distinct functions. New Jersey and Rhode Island 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.

The need to re-examine how DHSS provides services is why the agency last year commissioned the development of a strategic plan set to be published in February 2020.

“Having DHSS propose changes from within will be an important first step and I commend them for undertaking that process,” said Poore. “Our work will run parallel to that effort and likely incorporate some of their proposals. But one voice will not be enough to enact the kind of meaningful change or constituents deserve. I’m thankful to Gov. John Carney and my colleagues in the General Assembly for recognizing that this conversation must include input directly from the men, women and children whose lives are affected by DHSS every day.”

Senate Concurrent Resolution 65 now heads to the House for a final vote.