State health agencies in Georgia are weathering last year’s budget cuts from the COVID-19 pandemic with a boost from the federal government and by working more remotely, several agency heads told state lawmakers Thursday, Jan. 21.

An increase of hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal share of Medicaid costs helped the state Department of Community Health (DCH) cover more Medicaid-eligible families and children “than we have ever had before,” said DCH Commissioner Frank Berry.

The number of Medicaid recipients in Georgia spiked by more than 150,000 between March and August of last year, increasing to about 2 million recipients as of September, according to federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data.

DCH officials managed to save nearly $345 million under a federal policy allowing states to reduce their payment shares for Medicaid through the end of June this year, after which officials expect Georgia’s Medicaid costs to increase by about $201 million in fiscal 2022.

Larger federal spending on Medicaid also saved about $32 million in costs that would have been cut last year from the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), which treats more than 200,000 Georgians with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Mental-health caseworkers benefitted from relaxed rules on telehealth that allowed them to keep seeing clients remotely who may have otherwise fallen into crisis situations requiring emergency hospital care, said DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald.

“There is no aspect of health and human services that has not been touched by the pandemic,” Fitzgerald said. “Every impact of our delivery service has been dramatically changed very rapidly as a result of [COVID-19].”

Health-focused agencies pitched lean budget proposals Thursday, Jan. 21, after weathering roughly $2.2 billion in spending cuts last year across state government from the pandemic. State lawmakers are assessing budgets through June 2022 that would avoid the 10% cuts approved during last year’s legislative session.

Federal funds also propped up the state Department of Human Services (DHS) with $30 million for home-delivered meals and caregiver support for the thousands of elderly Georgians the agency serves, said DHS Commissioner Robyn Crittenden. Her agency is seeking an extra $1 million for more elder-abuse caseworkers.

Meanwhile, the state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is set for about $14 million in savings after adopting out foster kids to homes last year. DFCS Director Tom Rawlings told lawmakers the agency has reduced the number of foster children in its care from 15,000 to 11,200 since 2018 but could move faster if placement hearings were not suspended due to the pandemic.

“We’ve got to have those hearings to move those children into successful permanency,” Rawlings said.

With the budget picture clearer, agencies like Berry’s DCH are preparing to spend millions of dollars on implementing Gov. Brian Kemp’s health insurance changes starting in July. DCH officials are also grappling with a nearly $700-million deficit projected in the next few years for the state health benefit plan, which covers around 665,000 government and school employees in Georgia.

The amended fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022 budgets for the agencies are poised for approval in the coming weeks as the General Assembly continues the 2021 legislative session.

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