CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia dropped plans Wednesday to freeze a program that helps parents pay for child care while they work, seek jobs or attend school. Officials also began seeking alternatives to excluding hundreds of low-income families from the program next year.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the state would no longer end enrollment into the program on Aug. 1 as scheduled. But higher copayments will still take effect that day, increasing the parent’s share of child care costs from 5 percent to 12 percent. That would hike the average weekly copayment from $5.58 to $13.38, according to figures from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
Tomblin also said he will seek a way to avoid a scheduled cut to the program by enlisting parents, lawmakers, state health officials and others “to share ideas about how to sustain this critical program for our families.”
“We need to strike a reasonable balance between access to and quality of childcare while placing a priority on funding services for the families and children who need it most,” Tomblin, a Democrat seeking re-election, said in a statement.
The Department of Health and Human Resources plans to tighten eligibility requirements for the program, by limiting it to families with annual household incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s sets an income ceiling of $34,575 for a family of four. The program now covers children in households earning up to 185 percent of the poverty line, or $42,643 for a family of four, according to the latest federal figures.
Restricting the threshold that way would exclude 1,425 children from the program, meant to help parents afford child care in settings outside the home. The program served more than 24,000 children during the 2010-2011 budget year, at a cost of $54 million, according to DHHR figures.
Children exempt from these changes include those in foster care, receiving Temporary Aid for Needy Families, under court-ordered care of the subject of a child protective service case.
Tomblin’s reversal follows an outcry by day care providers, parents and other child advocates over both the loss of this aid and the resulting revenue loss for providers. While the changes do not affect the size of each subsidy, the drop in enrollment would reduce day care center income by 30 percent, the West Virginia Association of Young Children estimated Tuesday. That group and others planned to rally with parents and other supporters Wednesday at the Capitol to urge against the scheduled changes. Organizers canceled the rally following Tomblin’s announcement, said Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count.
Tomblin’s Republican opponent, Bill Maloney, was scheduled to speak at the rally. Maloney supports the program as critical to children and helpful to working families, and would reverse the copayment hike and any tightening of eligibility standards if elected, his campaign said Tuesday.
“Earl Ray Tomblin chose to punish children and working families with these cuts, which shows just how out of touch with West Virginians he is, Seth Wimer, Maloney’s campaign manager,” said in a statement.
Maloney narrowly lost to Tomblin in a special election last year for completing an unexpired term. With the office up this year for a full four years, Tomblin’s campaign countered that Maloney supports GOP-proposed changes to Social Security and Medicaid while questioning such government spending as federal funding for education.
“His policies would be devastating for West Virginia families,” said Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s campaign manager.
Tomblin administration officials have blamed the scheduled scale-back on the exhaustion of a federal funding surplus that had earlier allowed state to expand the program.
The tightened income eligibility standard would put West Virginia’s program in line with neighboring Kentucky and Virginia, according to 2011 figures from the National Women’s Law Center. Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania all set stricter limits, the figures show.
The center’s 2011 report on state child care assistance policies also found that West Virginia’s copayments were lower, sometimes significantly so, than all five of its neighbors.
West Virginia’s changes reflect a trend among state programs that helped prompt the 2011 report. It counted five states, including Ohio, that tightened income eligibility that year while two hiked copayments. Ohio was also among five states that reduced provider rates, and four including Maryland were threatened by growing waiting lists for their programs.