By Lowell L. Kalapa
In a recent meeting with the directors of nonprofit social service and health agencies, the issue of state cutbacks became the central issue of discussion. With nearly a $300 million reduction in the forecast of state tax revenues over the current and next fiscal year, many of these nonprofits are afraid that their contracts will be the first to be cut to make up for the shortfall.
However, as the discussion evolved, those around the table agreed that cuts to health and human services would be foolish given the dislocation of workers who would need support services as they face the prospect of homelessness and hunger. Instead the focus turned the discussion to how can government insure that there are enough resources or revenues to provide the services that the community will need given the downturn in the economy and the resulting decline in tax revenues.
Instead of cutting services, the group suggested that perhaps there may be more efficient and cost- effective ways of delivering those services. Looking at their own operations, some of the executive directors noted that in many cases, some of the costs they incurred in providing these health and human services were made more expensive or unreasonable because of inane state and county regulations. For example, child care providers cannot provide meals to their clients because they cannot afford to put in the stainless steel venting hood or the three compartment stainless steel sinks required of a certified kitchen that cooks meals for a fee.
These are the same regulations that are imposed on restaurants and other commercial food service establishments where the preparation of food is the main reason for their business. But as some of the executive directors argued, most of the child care providers, and in some case providers of elderly care, are already committed to providing the best of care for their clients. They would not think of endangering the health of their clients, yet they are beset with the same standards of a food service establishment.
The result is that if they want to serve the children or the elderly a meal as part of the program, they must contract with an outside caterer to provide that meal. They can’t even open a can of soup and heat it up so that the children, or the elderly, can have a hot meal. The result is that the cost of providing that care, be it to the young or elderly, rises by the cost of the catered meal.
Another member of the group pointed out how the state’s outdated purchase order system actually drives the cost of goods and services up instead of making sure the state purchases those goods at the best possible price. As an example, purchase of travel through the purchase order system adversely increases the cost of travel. Because it can take as much as two weeks to process a purchase order, a bargain airfare that can be secured today will undoubtedly rise in the two-week time period during which the purchase order is being processed. As a result, noted this one member of the group, the airfare can cost as much as 50% more than if that same ticket had been purchased on the spot with a credit card.
As another member of the discussion group pointed out, despite the efforts of state officials to attract high technology to the state, the government itself is still operating in basic low and no technology. On one hand, the department of human services has moved away from the old fashion paper food stamps to what is now called an EBT card which allows welfare recipients to purchase food products without the stigma of food stamps but with the convenience of a debit card. The sales clerk merely debits the card for the qualified purchase and the amount is paid directly from the department of human services to the grocery store.
On the other hand, teachers in the department of education get so frustrated with the purchase order system because it takes so long and so much paperwork that they go down to the local department store and use their own money to purchase classroom supplies. It is not that there isn’t any money in the state budget for classroom supplies, but it is the frustration of dealing with the purchase order system. One would think that the department of education could have taken a hint from the department of human services and provided debit cards to teachers so they could purchase classroom supplies.
So is it reasonable to think we can find better and more cost efficient ways of providing public services? You bet, and lawmakers might want to start working on ways to reform the system so that we can maximize what resources we have without cutting services and without raising taxes.