Secretary: DHHR transition complex, fluid

The secretary told WSAZ dividing DHHR in three is complex, and the ongoing transition is an iterative process without one working document.
Published: May. 3, 2023 at 5:53 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Hundreds of thousands, young and old, living in West Virginia rely upon the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources, a massive agency that finds itself in transition.

State lawmakers voted earlier this year to split that agency in three by Jan. 1, 2024 -- a Department of Health Facilities, Department of Human Services and a Department of Health.

Yet when lawmakers asked for a transition plan two weeks ago they got this answer.

“Unfortunately, I am unable to do that at this time, because I have not yet had the requisite meetings with the Governor’s Office to discuss that plan in depth,” Interim DHHR Sec. Jeffrey Coben told lawmakers April 17.

Coben told lawmakers that meeting would take place the following week.

So WSAZ NewsChannel 3′s Curtis Johnson waited a week and followed up with Gov. Jim Justice, who confirmed that meeting took place Wednesday, April 26, but had no other details.

“I really wish we had Dr. Coben on and everything,” Justice said April 26. “We’ll have him on next week, for sure.”

A week after that question, the secretary appeared Wednesday at the governor’s briefing. Johnson followed up again.

“What decisions have been made?” Johnson asked. “Is that plan accessible? And, also, how does DHHR plan to communicate with families and providers? And when will those external communications begin?”

Justice, a Republican, deferred to his interim secretary.

“There is not a single document, master plan that I can provide to you today,” Coben told Johnson. “This is an iterative process that we’re going through, but I think that we’re making really good progress with the Governor and his team.”

The secretary told Johnson the transition is complex, explaining officials are working to protect federal funding in the middle of a budget year as they change a structure that has been in place for about 35 years.

“It’s not a matter of simply flipping the switch and changing it abruptly. We’ve got a nine-month time frame,” Coben said. “For right now, the points of contact that they have had in the past, are the same points of contact that they currently should have. If they have a question, if they have a program issue, it remains the same.”

The secretary said additional information will be shared as the governor identifies leaders for the three agencies and the plan is solidified.

Coben has already held 21 town hall meetings with about 2,500 DHHR workers.

The new law takes effect later this month, however, DHHR will continue to operate at one unit until the split occurs on New Year’s Day.