The Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) has recently announced that it is reorganizing services at 23 local offices, including the one in Knoxville. Community leaders including county personnel, State Representative Jim Van Engelenhoven, the mayors of Knoxville, Harvey, Pleasantville, and Melcher Dallas, and the Bussey City Clerk met with DHS representative Pat Penning Wednesday to discuss the change. Penning stated that consolidation likely means that some services in Knoxville will be by appointment only, and other staff will be in the county for one to three days a week. Penning says the change is a staffing issue, and that while no money will be saved by the reorganization, staff needs to be reallocated to accomodate growing needs elsewhere. She added that face to face interactions are not as critical as they were in the past, as many interactions can take place over the telephone and via the Internet.
County Supervisor Jim Kingery hosted the meeting at the courthouse, and expressed his concerns that needs in the community now served by DHS will not be filled as well, and that the county will need to allocate staff and other resources to make up for the losses. He suggested that in an effort for the state to save money costs were being passed down to counties. Kingrey is also not sure how clients will be better served when DHS staff is spending at least two hours a day commuting to and from Knoxville and other communities from Des Moines. Many if not all of those speaking at the meeting shared Kingery’s concerns. Betty Moll, supervisor of the County Central Point of Coordination for disability and mental services added that local DHS staff know our community well, and that face to face meetings are critical for our unique population. She says that many people requiring DHS services have no vehicles, no computers or the knowledge to use them, and therefore a local office is a necessity. Mike Kuhn with the County General Assistance Program and Veterans Affairs expressed skepticism at the new plan and asked why Marion County was being selected for consolidation given our high case load and Veteran population. He also expressed concern that this is effectively a closing of the Knoxville location, and that dedicated and high quality service now provided by Knoxville DHS staff will not be able to be replicated under the new system. Daily face to face interactions with the public being served as well as county and DHS staff are critical, both Moll and Kuhn suggest.
Staff of the Knoxville Hospital and Clinics were concerned that DHS response to critical situations including claims of child abuse and neglect would not be handled timely. CEO Ann Helwig and other staff expressed concerns that many people needing DHS help that could be provided locally would have to resort to area emergency rooms at great costs.
Many health care providers and social services professionals in the room expressed frustration whenever they needed to interact with DHS personnel in other locations than Knoxville. Difficulties getting phone calls answered, clients helped, and even emergency calls handled were said to be common whenever other locations needed to be contacted. Knoxville DHS staff were praised for their professionalism, hard work, dedication, and quick response. It was a clear concern that other offices would not be as responsive, and that the reallocation of Knoxville workers to other locations would result in a deterioration of services at great cost to clients and the local community.
The potential loss of jobs in the area was also brought up. Penning was uncertain if any jobs would be lost, or where those currently working in the Knoxville office would be reassigned. In a phone interview with Roger Munns with the DHS Tuesday, KNIA KRLS news was told that there would be no loss of jobs in the Knoxville office, although individuals will be reassigned to handle cases elsewhere, as well as in Marion County.
Supervisor Jim Kingery will lead the effort to appeal the decision.