Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2014

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LEGISLATURE:

State stops publicizing aid programs to cut costs

State officials, facing shrinking budgets and a growing demand for government services, have stopped publicizing some programs that aid the poor, children and the elderly in an effort to slow ballooning costs.

As a result, Nevada has become a state that not only offers a minimal social service safety net, but often hides the services it does provide in a bureaucratic maze.

“We don’t want to advertise services because then the state would have to pay more,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno. “That’s classic Nevada thinking and it has to change.”

For example, about a year ago, the state stopped doing outreach for its health insurance program for the poor.

One of the first budget cuts made at the beginning of the economic downturn was to money earmarked to advertise the state’s welfare program.

And until last year a property tax rebate for low-income senior citizens had never been publicized. (After Southern Nevada governments began advertising the property tax rebate program in the fall, 4,000 people signed up.)

In some cases, such as the property tax rebate for low income seniors, the low profile is due to a lack of resources.

There was a plan to advertise the property tax rebate program through county assessors, but with only two staff members running the state program and processing 18,000 applications, there was never time to implement the marketing or outreach, said Carol Sala, administrator of the Division for Aging Services.

In other instances, the decision not to inform the public is deliberate.

Such is the case with Nevada Check Up, which provides health insurance to low-income children. To qualify, a family of four must have an annual income between $21,200 and $42,400.

Mike Willden, director of the Health and Human Services Department, said there was a conscious decision to stop doing outreach for the program after “we saw the budget cuts coming, and knew money would be tight.”

About 24,000 children are enrolled in Nevada Check Up. Willden estimates 55,000 children are eligible.

About 7,000 applications are pending, as a staff depleted by a hiring freeze set 15 months ago processes them.

With Gov. Jim Gibbons proposing a 25,000-child enrollment cap on Nevada Check Up in the budget he submitted last month, administration officials say there are no plans to resume outreach.

“When we’re in the position of already cutting budgets, going out and recruiting new enrollees to increase costs doesn’t seem logical,” Health and Human Services spokesman Ben Kieckhefer said.

An early medical intervention program to provide specialized care for medically stricken toddlers also has an intentionally low profile.

When asked about advocates’ complaints that the state doesn’t notify parents of their rights to compensatory services under the program, Mary Wherry, deputy administrator of the Nevada State Health Division, told the Sun in a December story: “If every family were educated about the compensatory services opportunity, we could be at risk for a significant amount of expenditure.”

Critics note that cutbacks in outreach won’t save taxpayers money in the long run. The state will often end up paying for such children’s illnesses whether they’re enrolled in government programs or not. The costs will only increase if the treatment is provided in expensive emergency rooms.

“Why are we hiding what services we have,” said Linda Lera-Randle El, a homeless advocate. “We’ve got tens of thousands of people across the state who need help.

“Tell us where the money is. What, are we on an egg hunt?”

The problem has grown worse during the recession, but advocates have for years criticized the state for not publicizing its social services.

A few years ago, $13 million sat in a state fund to help low-income Nevadans pay utility bills. Administrators said they knew people needed the assistance, but didn’t know how to find them. After a Las Vegas Sun story on the unused funds, the state began a marketing campaign, which led to the money being distributed to those in need.

Patricia Durbin, executive director of the Great Basin Primary Care Association, said nonprofit groups have tried for years to get the word out about the Medicaid and Nevada Check Up programs.

“I know it’s not overt, but I know the state has not had a lot of outreach on Medicaid and Nevada Check Up,” Durbin said.

A few years ago, a federal regulation required the state to pay for a staffer in each community health center to assist patients with Medicaid paperwork and conduct other outreach. “The state has never complied,” Durbin said.

Leslie, who said she plans to fight the proposed cap on the Nevada Check Up program, noted the availability of a Nevada 211 hotline. Funded through a public-private partnership, the Nevada 211 call center provides residents with information about government resources available to them.

At least for now.

The governor’s budget proposes saving $200,000 by eliminating the state’s funding for the call center.

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