Funding dispute threatens health, counseling program

Funding dispute threatens health, counseling program

(Calif.) School nurses, speech pathologists, counselors and psychologists throughout California face pink slips this spring as districts struggled to close a $600 million gap created by a withholding of federal funds.

The money, much of it owed to schools for services to low-income families going back years, supports efforts by districts to locate and sign up students eligible for Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

The funds themselves are used for a wide variety of efforts aimed at giving disadvantaged students access to social and health care services, especially students with disabilities.

But federal auditors discovered some improper claims dating back more than three years and began withholding reimbursements in June, 2012, according to a legislative staff report. As a result, hundreds of school districts statewide have been forced to use a portion of their general fund money to keep critical services going – something local officials say they can no longer do.

“Regrettably, we are going to have to lay off our school nurses and psychologists who have been doing this work paid for out of this program,” explained Jay Hansen, a board member from Sacramento Unified, at a hearing earlier this week.

He noted that more than 70 percent of the district’s 42,000 students qualify for subsidized meals and thus take advantage of the School-Based Medi-Cal Administrative Activities funding.

School officials jammed a hearing Monday before the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on health care issues and could draw little more than a promise from the panel chair, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, to look deeper into the issue.

Norman Williams, spokesman for the Department of Health Care Services, said they believe schools are owed far less, closer to $200 million.

“Moving forward, we recognize that there are improvements that can be made regarding the state's oversight of the program and the training it provides to districts to ensure appropriate claiming,” Williams said in a statement. “We are committed to continue working with districts to improve this process.”

School officials have argued that very few claims have actually been found to be improper and note that most of the claims questioned by federal officials were initially approved by the state.

As the issue remains far from resolved, local officials want the Legislature to appropriate some additional funding to keep the services running until the federal dispute can be resolved.

“Seems like we need to look at providing some level of funding until the federal funding comes in,” said Erika Hoffman of the California School Boards Association. “The reality is out in the field, there are districts closing these programs and they are not going to open them back up again.”

In many school districts, the administrative funding has been used to support development of Family Resource Centers, which coordinate a variety of social and health-related services to qualified students and their families.

Sacramento Unified, for instance, has 21 such centers that target low-achieving students with support that includes tutoring and mentoring, conflict resolution and dental screening. Center staff is also engaged with crisis intervention, parenting classes, immunization clinics and translation services.

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