SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois Department of Human Services staff is so lean that caseworkers spend an average of only 42 minutes a year per family, the agency's chief said Thursday.
Human Services Secretary Michelle Saddler told lawmakers that the agency needs money to hire additional workers in order for the agency to keep their "noses above water." The number of caseworkers has shrunk nearly 20 percent in the past seven years, according to agency numbers, while the number of people seeking assistance jumped by 47 percent.
Saddler is pushing for 600 additional caseworkers, including 100 new employees proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn in his budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The new staff members are needed to adequately serve millions of Illinois residents who are eligible for food, medical and financial assistance, child care services and other programs.
As of December, the agency's 1,870 case managers were handling 1.75 million cases. That's nearly 560,000, or 47 percent, more than in 2006, before the recession hit and the department had 2,315 caseworkers.
"DHS needs a more realistic staffing," Saddler said. "Some caseworkers are handling up to 2,600 cases."
The 42-minute calculation is based on 1,800 work-hours per year per caseworker handling 2,600 files, an agency spokeswoman said.
Saddler's testimony came before a House appropriations committee, and disconcerted some lawmakers.
"The situation is unacceptable," said Rep. Greg Harris. "We need to be sure to have the manpower to process these applications in a timely fashion because people are going without health care (and) their families are going without food because the burden on the workers is just too much."
Harris, a Chicago Democrat, is chairman of the committee that will make a recommendation on the agency's budget. He said the department also needs a technology upgrade — allowing, for example, people to submit assistance applications and other information online.
"People won't have to sit and wait for an appointment with a caseworker or leave a voicemail and hope that somebody will call them back," he said.
The agency is scheduled to lose 500 employees — none of them caseworkers — by the coming fiscal year. Saddler is proposing putting caseworkers in those 500 positions.
But Republican Rep. Patricia Bellock of Hinsdale worries that the 600 new caseworkers won't be enough should the General Assembly approve a federally subsidized expansion of Medicaid — the government health program for the poor and disabled. Estimates show that hundreds of thousands additional Illinois residents could become eligible under the planned expansion.
"People need to get seen because they're the most vulnerable population," Bellock said. "But if you take another half a million people, you're going to have to double that workforce."
Yet, Bellock warned, the state's fiscal condition does not have room for that many new caseworkers.
A measure that would authorize the Medicaid enrollment increase cleared the Senate in February, and officials expect the House to vote on the issue before the Legislature adjourns in May.
Quinn has proposed increasing the department's funding 8 percent to $6.3 billion for next fiscal year.
Quinn's budget proposal: http://tinyurl.com/d9fkjkf
Contact Regina Garcia Cano at https://www.twitter.com/reginagarciakNO