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 DHS News May 2013    

The Human Services Block Grant: Inside the Process 

The process used by DHS to prepare for its 2013-14 Human Services Block Grant hearings tapped into principles that underscore the department’s daily operations.

“This is all about transparency and engagement,” said John Sawyer, DHS Manager of Government Affairs and Public Policy, in discussing the mechanism for planning for the block grant. The fiscal year ahead will mark the second in which the state has given money covering seven categories of services to participating counties in a “block,” with flexibility in how to use the funds for the specified services phased in over 5 years. Full flexibility is expected in 2016-17.

“It’s kind of in Marc’s DNA: When we’re implementing something new that affects people’s lives, we have to be open about this and get ideas from the community.”

John referred to Marc Cherna, DHS Director, who appeared along with John and Shannon Fairchild, DHS Planning Manager, at two public hearings in the Human Services Building, Downtown, to present plans for the block grant and review how those plans were developed.  

The block grant comes with the requirement to fund those seven specific program areas. They include certain drug and alcohol treatment programs for the uninsured; community-based programs for treatment of people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities;  the Human Services Development Fund; the Homeless Assistance Program and Child Welfare Special Grants.

The block grant is not the sole state funding source for DHS programs. In fact, it constitutes only 16 percent of the total 2013-14 budget, or $132,302,745. The figure includes county matching funds of about $4 million. The entire DHS budget totals $802,079,252.

In 2013-14, counties participating in block grant funding can shift up to 25 percent of the money between categories, as local need demands.

However, DHS officials decided to be conservative with that flexibility this year, tapping only about 2 percent of it, or about $2.4 million. The percentage is calculated only on state funding.

Reductions in administrative costs and efficiencies freed up the money, Marc said.  The money was not taken from existing programming.

And the money will be used to investigate pilot programs that are expected to address gaps in services,  improve integration of programs that assist people in need, and, it’s hoped, increase financial efficiency as well.

“We’re picking some to get started with. This is not the whole universe,” Marc told an audience at the May 15 block grant hearing. He emphasized that in a time of increasingly tight funding, being especially mindful of spending is crucial.

“It’s a tough environment. We’re trying to make the best of it,” Marc said.

To that end, DHS administrators took a three-pronged approach to planning for the block grant, beyond holding the required public hearings.

DHS set up an advisory board of 49 members, selected from 122 applicants. While establishing such a board is not required, doing so has proven beneficial in other prior program deliberations, so the approach was incorporated into the block grant process.

The board’s composition ranges from consumers and family members to service providers and advocates.  They will review the plan, provide feedback, and assist in ensuring it is correctly implemented.

DHS staffers also reviewed four cases to see how social service systems have been serving clients and how well they work together.

“The goal was to ask ourselves tough questions about our system: ‘Are there barriers we have put up? Are there barriers regulations have put up?’” John said in explaining the process.  “Part of the idea is to bring together the seven funding streams, and so it was helpful to know what barriers we could address through this new flexibility.”

Findings included discovering conflicting policies among providers and systems; that providers and consumers need more timely and extensive access to data; that consumers need assistance in developing natural supports; and that sequencing of services is critical for consumers.

DHS also issued a call for concepts for utilizing the available flexible funds.

The latter procedure developed out of last year’s block grant public hearings and was used to solicit new and creative approaches to human service delivery from the wider community.

Forty-seven concepts were received from providers, DHS staff and partners, including the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh. Many targeted transition-aged youth; families who are homeless; and people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities.

“We’re doing this is in a cautious, planned way,” John said. “The way we put this is to go out into the field and bring your ideas to us.”


Six concepts will be funded with $2.4 million in the 2013-14 state Human Services Block Grant.  The money represents 2 percent of about $128 million in state funding. The grant totals $132,302,745 when required county matching funds are calculated in it. Funding for the concepts was found through efficiencies, rather than cuts to programs.  Two other concepts will be studied but not funded.

DHS officials said more ideas received during the block grant planning process will be reviewed for possible future implementation.

The pilot concepts to be funded are:

  • Improving Homeless Services – Concept submitted by Pitt’s Office of Child Development. DHS will use case management for families with children in emergency shelters. It will also support the second year of a project that creates “Bright Spaces” with early childhood programming onsite at family shelter programs. In parallel with these pilot projects, DHS will conduct a thorough examination of how homeless people access supports.
  • Collaborative School-Based Mental Health Program. Creation of an after-school, community-based counseling program for students in grades 6-12 in the Elizabeth-Forward School District, where transportation to Mon Yough Community Health Services is difficult. The program includes tutoring. 
  • Support Groups for Immigrants and Refugees. The program proposed by Jewish Family & Children’s Services and partners addresses critical, unaddressed behavioral health needs among non-English speaking refugees and other immigrants.  
  • Individual Care Grants. Concept submitted by Family Services of Western Pennsylvania to assist people needing a high degree of services that cannot be met otherwise. This concept will be explored in 2013-14, which will include developing an interagency process to identify and connect people in need. 
  • Support men and women slated to leave the County Jail, their children and families. This strengthens the Jail Collaborative project and Justice Related Services and proposes a resource specialist to work with magistrate offices to close and identify human services gaps at that level of the court system.  
  • Improve provider access to client data. To improve integration of services and the quality of care for consumers, DHS will work toward expanded access to data for our network of contracted providers. 

Concepts to be studied and considered for future funding are:

  • Universal Crisis Services. Allegheny County HealthChoices Inc. proposed this concept to assist people such as the elderly, homeless, those with intellectual disabilities and more with mobile services to prevent hospitalization or displacement. The targeted population is those who now do not receive such services.  
  • Reviewing Transition Age Youth Services. DHS staff will review services to youth with mental health issues who need support after they leave care for children. Gaps in service and quality of care will be among the issues examined.  

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