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October 11, 2001     (512) 463-0300

Health and Human Services Committee Begins Work for the 77th Interim

The Health and Human Services Committee of the Texas Senate today examined the issues it will be studying during the 77th Interim. The committee's report is due November 15, 2002, in time for its recommendations to be considered by the 78th Legislature.

Among those issues examined are the availability and adequacy of mental health services for children and adolescents, evaluating the community mental health services delivery structure and examining the way the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR) distributes funds to local communities.

Today the committee had briefings from the various state agencies concerned with the health and welfare of Texans. Don Gilbert from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission led off, saying that certain programs had proved more expensive than originally anticipated and that his agency would be getting those revised figures as soon as possible.

Karen Hale, Commissioner of MHMR, reported that her agency is establishing better ways to manage care, creating a better connection between what people need and what services were actually available. A special task force will be examining the role of local mental health authorities and how the system can be more efficiently managed. Ms. Hale said that among other issues, the agency is also continuing to increase the number of children enrolled through the Children's' Health Insurance Program. Senator Jane Nelson was concerned about the increased demands that might be created by the recent terrorist attacks. Hale said it's really too early to tell, but that over time there will certainly be an effect. Chairman Mike Moncrief was concerned about how children are getting services, saying he wanted to know where there might be shortages of services due to the shutdown of private mental health facilities.

The Texas Department of Human Services was represented by Commissioner Jim Hine. He spoke about caseloads and how his agency is implementing legislative initiatives. He said about a million and a half Texans have been receiving food stamps, a number that dropped last year, but has recently increased due to the slowing economy. Senator Moncrief said that the committee would be working with DHS as well as the other agencies to examine rules concerning the restraint of children in mental health institutions.

Larry Temple from the Texas Workforce Commission told the committee that they are working with local boards to ensure that job training services are available to all Texans. And that they are focusing on clients who are the hardest to serve, including those who are victims of domestic violence.

Mary Wolfe of the Texas Rehabilitation Commission reported that there are issues regarding Social Security benefits in Texas. To clear cases in a timely fashion, her agency works with both state and federal regulators as they distribute federal funds through the state structure. But she says that currently Social Security is currently underfunded that there are simply more cases than there is money to fund them. It may be as long as two months before a staff member can begin a new case after it has been submitted to the agency.

Dr. Charles Bell represented the Texas Department of Health (TDH). He said the agency was working on responses to bio-terrorism, issues regarding organ donations and vaccinations against childhood diseases. While responding to concerns expressed by Senator Chris Harris, Sam Wilson with TDH's Emergency Preparedness Division, said TDH was working with agricultural authorities to guard against an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease, among others. Senator Harris said that he wants no finger-pointing among agencies and added: "...if we're not prepared(for an outbreak), EVERYONE'S head's going to roll." He requested a copy of TDH's game plan for coping with such an outbreak.

Dr. Bell also reported that TDH is working with local, federal and other state authorities to prepare for any other outbreak of sickness in either people or animals that could be terrorist-related. H emphasized that the key to stopping any such outbreak is early detection. Senator Jane Nelson asked whether all local health authorities knew who to contact in case they had any suspicions and was assured that ongoing training should ensure that they do.

Regarding childrens vaccinations, Bell said that the agency needs to target young children under two years old, as their vaccination rate falls from about 80 percent for newborns to around 55 percent for two year-olds. Another problem is the rising cost of new vaccines. He also discussed the departments task force on organ donation and its recommendations. The final witness was Drew Thigpen, interim executive director with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services(PRS). Mr. Thigpen said they still have a 42.4% annual caseworker turnover due in part to growing case loads. Thigpen did not foresee any increase in case load resulting from the ripple effect of the September 11th terrorist attack.

The Senate Interim Committee on Health and Human Services is made up of Chairman Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth, Vice-Chairman John Carona of Dallas, Senators David Bernsen of Beaumont, Mario Gallegos of Houston, Chris Harris of Fort Worth, Frank Madla of San Antonio, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and David Sibley of Waco.

The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.

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