Jun. 23—A spending plan that steers state funds to several human services programs drew support Thursday from the Berks County commissioners.
The board was presented with the preliminary budget for the Berks County Human Services Block Grant — a program that allows local officials to decide how to spend money on programs for the homeless, those battling addiction, those who are intellectually disabled or otherwise vulnerable residents.
Pamela Seaman, administrator of mental health and developmental disabilities programs for the county, told the commissioners that her $15 million is expected to cover the cost of services for nearly 18,000 people.
Berks has been participating in the block grant program since 2012.
It was designed to give counties more flexibility to spread out its state aid to the local agencies with the most need. Seaman said the program has been very helpful in rearranging the cash flow during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seaman said she was grateful for waivers at the state and federal level that gave her department greater flexibility over how providers could deliver services. That included allowing for expanded telehealth services, enhanced service rates to keep providers financially functional and increased remote learning options.
"Our providers have been tremendously flexible, adaptive and creative," she said. "They have tried innovative ways to try to support people throughout this pandemic crisis."
Despite those efforts, Seaman said many programs saw decreases in the number of people accessing services and the volume of services requested. That means the department will likely be forced to return some of its unused funds to the state.
This marks two years in a row that many programs saw a decline in usage levels.
Seaman outlined the proposed block grant budget to commissioners:
—The Mental Health Fund: $9,876,650 million; people served in 2020-21: 7,627
—The Developmental Disabilities Fund: $2,945,906 million; people served in 2020-21: 1,295
—Human Services Development Fund: $322,352; people served in 2020-21: 734
—Homeless Assistance Program: $455,873; people served in 2020-21: 819
—Behavioral Health Services Initiative & Drug and Alcohol: $1,489,071 ; people served in 2020-21: 6,745
Seaman highlighted a few programs in particular that she believes made a difference.
She noted that service providers in the county offer a comprehensive and well-funded housing plan, programming for young people, a diverse continuum of service, mental health support for students at local school districts and an opioid task force.
But, she said, there is still room for improvement.
Seaman said the county need to focus on bolstering its supportive housing options, extending services to those with acute mental health issues, increasing the number of Medicare providers and expanding the number of providers that treat patients who are dealing with multiple issues.