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District 13 health board prepares for likely demise

A reorganization of the state Department of Children and Families likely will dissolve county Health and Human Services panels.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2000


The District 13 Health and Human Services Board will meet at 1 p.m. May 25.

After that, it's likely the board never will meet again.

The Department of Children and Families, which the board helps oversee in this region, is set to undergo a significant reorganization. If the Legislature approves the reorganization plan -- and it's expected to do so this week -- the board and its counterparts statewide quickly would become things of the past.

Replacing the boards would be new "community alliances" whose members would be key decisionmakers and social-service providers in each county.

Under the current structure, there is a board for each Department of Children and Families district. Those districts often comprise several counties. Board members are residents who have expertise or intense interest in social services.

The alliances are designed to help ease the transition as the department brings in private providers to oversee foster care and other related services.

The District 13 board helps oversee department operations in Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Lake and Sumter counties. The department serves a variety of social service needs, such as helping people who have developmental disabilities, helping determine Medicaid eligibility, and protecting children and seniors from abuse and neglect.

"We were the people who were supposed to be advocates for those who were served by the department," said Doris Bedell of Hernando County, who is serving as board chairwoman.

"We're supposedly the sounding board for the (district administrator) into the community and the counties that we represent," said Earl Samstag, a longtime Citrus representative on the board.

The District 13 board has not taken a formal stand concerning the proposed reorganization. But it's fairly clear that boards throughout Florida aren't thrilled with their imminent demise.

"I think there's a range of reactions," said Don Winstead, a top department official in Tallahassee. "In general, I think, many of the people . . . would have liked to see that body continued."

Still, Bedell is looking ahead rather than back. With the proposed reorganization all but approved, she has written a letter to board members asking them to seek a spot on their county's alliance or to become involved with private groups that will become lead agencies in the privatization push.

Samstag will not heed that advice, but not because he's upset with the reorganization. He has served on the board the past eight years and was ready to move on.

"I'm very cautious at this point," he said, referring to the alliances. "The providers are going to have so much input and so much responsibility."

Indeed, the Legislature is expected to approve a plan that would call for providers to play a key role in the alliances. Lawmakers also want the rosters to include people from the county government, schools, law enforcement and the courts. The alliances will have authority to expand membership, as well.

"I think they'll have less influence" than the boards did, Bedell said.

But from the department's standpoint, the membership makeup is logical. The Legislature has clearly and repeatedly instructed Children and Families to shift its duties in foster care and related services to outside groups.

The alliances, Winstead said, would be positioned "to better support community-based care."

Winstead said the department recognized and appreciated the board members who have "worked tirelessly" through the years. Many of those board members could become alliance members.

As for Bedell's concerns, Winstead noted that alliances will have some oversight functions and that the reorganization plan would not weaken the state human-rights advocacy committee, which oversees the department's performance.

Each Florida county would be eligible to have its own alliance. However, the counties could decide to be partners with nearby counties.

As Tallahassee puts its finishing touches on the plan this week, the board will prepare for its last hurrah. It will gather at 1 p.m. May 25 at the Department of Children and Families office in Wildwood, on State Road 44 about 3 miles east of Interstate 75.

First, board members will celebrate.

"A lot of people gave a lot of hours of service over the years. They should be honored for that," Bedell said.

Then, from 3 to 4 p.m., they will discuss business.

"It would be right to end with a board meeting," Bedell said.

* * *

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