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Social Services case loads on rise while funding starts to run dry

This graph illustrates the rising number of income maintenance cases in Hubbard County. (Source: Hubbard County Social Services)

The rising need for public assistance is on a collision course with program funds dwindling too rapidly to keep pace.

And what will happen to society when government at all levels has fostered a dependence on programs and assistance that will either suffer cuts or sunset clauses, rendering them obsolete?

Those are among the massive worries Daryl Bessler carries on his shoulders these days.

It began Wednesday with the report on income maintenance, which continues to rise at an alarming pace.

Requests for food subsidies and other help has risen by 85 cases since October.

"It's not good news," the Social Services director told the Hubbard County board.

"I don't really see anything in sight that says this is going to slow down."

But what bothers Bessler is that federal stimulus funding used to augment many programs or to start new ones will run out in September.

"People will get acclimated to this (crisis funding) but come fall, the money will be zapped," Bessler said.

While federally funded programs likely will escape drastic cuts, eligibility could be tightened.

"We're dealing with a lot of appeals," Bessler told the board.

It's the state funded programs that "will take the biggest hit," he predicted.

And state Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman told the House health care finance committee this week he expects proposed budget cuts by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to affect virtually all of the public assistance programs.

Pawlenty has suggested health and human services cuts of $347 million to balance the budget. That presumes the state receives $387 million in stimulus monies. If it doesn't, the cuts could be deeper.

Pawlenty would cut the number of those eligible for MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance program, all but wipe out General Assistance Medical Care, reduce payments to nursing homes and long-term care facilities and reduce child care assistance.

"It will create huge problems when we ratchet that back," Bessler said of the GAMC.

Government-funded programs have "created a feast or famine atmosphere and we get left picking up the pieces."

Social workers in Hubbard County have seen their caseloads rise exponentially. In January 2000, each of the eight social workers handled on average 138 cases. Last month, even adding another employee, social workers had an average of 242 cases. A tenth social worker has been hired.

But both Bessler and board chairman Lyle Robinson question whether local taxpayers can continue to shoulder the burden of caring for their fellow citizens.

"People are giving up their Minnesota homesteads," Robinson said. "They can't pay the income tax."

Bessler singled out a recent development that highlights his frustration with the state and federal bureaucracies.

It has to do with transporting elderly people to and from hospitals and clinics.

If family cannot afford to do the driving, or there isn't a family, volunteers have been driving low-income people to their appointments. They get their mileage reimbursed through a state program.

Now, Minnesota says the federal government won't reimburse the mileage of "no load" trips.

That means the volunteers, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, take someone to Rochester, then return with an empty car, that return trip will not be reimbursed.

And Bessler says that's just plain wrong. When rural areas are not served by mass transit, volunteers aren't likely to take their own time to transport patients at their own expense, he said.

"What kind of a mental giant does it take to figure this through?" questioned county commissioner Dick Devine. "Do we have the discretionary funds" to cover the expenses, he asked.

Not unless the county can come up with $60,000.

"Why would we bail out their stupidity?" asked Robinson.

Bessler said he was instructed to read through the federal bulletin and implement it.

"Read slow and let us know next month," Robinson said. "Or we can use the express lane idea. Put an inflatable doll in the passenger seat" of the volunteer driving.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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