Oregon Department of Human Services Director's Message
November 21, 2008 DHS Director's messages on the web
To: All DHS employees
From: Bruce Goldberg, M.D., director
Will our clients be counted?

"The measure of a country's greatness is its ability to retain compassion in times of crisis."
~Thurgood Marshall

I know you've seen the news this week about Oregon's increased unemployment rate and declining state revenues. At the same time more people are turning to us for help.

As reported in the Oregonian Tuesday, our caseloads for cash assistance and food stamps are increasing in scope as well as number, particularly in Central and Southern Oregon.

Lisa Lewis, the CAF self-sufficiency program manager for the Medford area, said that in all her 16 years she has never seen such a high caseload and that many of the people asking the state for help have never been in our offices before. "They are blue-collar professionals...dry-wallers, electricians, plumbers," she told the newspaper.

As I think about how the unemployment, caseload and revenue numbers affect the lives of Oregonians, I remember another set of numbers: $25 billion - that's how much money auto executives want Americans to pay to bail out their industry. $700 billion - that's the amount that already has been committed to bail out Wall Street.

I also think about how the auto industry executives flew to our nation's capital in private jets to plead their case.

And it makes me wonder - if our clients showed up on the Capitol steps asking for help, would they get the same response? If carloads, busloads and trainloads of unemployed workers, people with disabilities, foster children, Oregon Health Plan members, and senior citizens drove across the country to ask lawmakers to protect the essential services they count on, would they get a sympathetic ear?

I'd like to think so, which is why I am encouraged by discussions of a second stimulus package in Congress, which would bring help to states struggling to meet the needs of their citizens.

On the table as part of the stimulus package is a proposal to increase the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP). FMAP is the share of our Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) costs paid for by the federal government. An increase in the FMAP rate would bring millions more federal dollars per year into Oregon. An FMAP increase provided to states during the 2003 recession helped millions of people.

As we are looking at double-digit caseload increases, double-digit medical inflation and drastically declining revenues, this federal money would be welcome relief for the Oregon families who are out of work, out of options and needing support.

Our ability to meet increased demand for services without increased revenue is limited. Unlike the federal government, Oregon (and most other states) cannot opt for short-term budget deficits and will be forced to reduce spending or eliminate programs to address budget shortfalls. Earlier this week state economists announced a $142 million deficit for the remainder of the 2007-2009 budget, which ends in June. To fill the budget hole the Governor has called for a 1.2 percent across-the-board budget cut, which is about $40 million for DHS. This would be above and beyond our current budget deficit caused by increased caseload, declining tobacco revenue and decreased federal support.

As you know quite well, over the past six months we have taken measures to reduce our expenses, including a hiring freeze and a reduction in non-essential expenditures. We showed savings and reductions of more than $50 million to last September's Legislative Emergency Board and we will report on further actions at the December E-Board. But these measures will not save enough money to meet the demands we are facing.

As I write this, President-elect Obama has encouraged Congress to pass the stimulus package that includes an FMAP increase and has pledged that if it isn't passed by the time he takes office January 20, it will be his top priority.

Oregonians, and those of us who help them through troubled times, are holding out hope that's exactly what happens. Because each number on a caseload or unemployment report represents a real person or a real family and they are too important to be discounted.

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