By Rose Hoban

Late Monday evening, members of the General Assembly rolled out their final version of the 2019-20 budget, which includes some notable expansions in health and human services for the coming biennium.

Probably the most HHS notable item in this year’s $23 billion budget document is $27 million in new funding to increase NC Pre-K slots for children who otherwise would be unable to attend preschool programs.

“This is the largest single investment that I can remember investing in Pre-K children,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Cary) during a press conference Monday afternoon to preview the final document.

“This will eliminate 75 percent of the current wait list for at-risk children,” he said, claiming the funds would cover the costs for an additional 3,525 children in the program, which enrolled 28,757 in the 2015-16 school year. That cash infusion will bring total enrollment over 30,000 for the first time since the 2012-13 school year when 32,142 4-year-olds were enrolled.

Another notable change includes about $18 million in funding for North Carolina’s troubled child welfare system, “including new training and prevention programs and nearly $4 million to improve accountability and oversight over the system,” Dollar said.

“It was Senate language that Sen. Barringer and so many other people worked on last week to really fundamentally modernize the child welfare system,” he said, referring to a bill that moved through Senate committees in the past two weeks. “I think it stand us in good stead for many, many years … when all of this comes together with all of the appropriate funding that we have provided for it.”

Other notable additions to the health and human services budget include:

– Maintaining Durham’s Wright School and, in addition, asking the state Department of Health and Human Services to perform a study on statewide expansion of the model. “Because it was not a statewide program that’s why it was looked at hard,” said Sen. Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville). “Now we’re looking at ways to expand it across the state.”

– Appropriating $2.6 million over two years to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship to allow the organization purchase medical equipment and get training on how to use it. This substantially increases appropriations to the organization, which received $300,000 in last year’s budget. The budget eliminates a provision which would have forced hospitals to choose between performing abortions and receiving state funding for other purposes.

– Providing the framework and funding to raise the age at which 16- and 17-year-olds are charged as adults in the criminal justice system. “What’s significant is we’ve got funding, planning monies on the front end and money for a new facility including beds in the capital side of the budget,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Hendersonville), who helped shepherd the initiative through both chambers.

– Allocates $12 million to expand community services to an additional 400 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

– Makes several moves to address the number of overdoses from opioids in North Carolina, including funding improvements to the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System and channeling $10 million in federal grants toward treatment and recovery services. That’s about half of what was called for in the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act which had bipartisan sponsorship and support at the legislature.

– Cuts a total of $31.5 million in annual funding, plus $55.4 million of one-time funding from the state’s mental health management entities in the coming fiscal year, with similar cuts planned for 2018.

– Provides $250,000 in one-time funding to allow for the continuation of the Healthy Food Small Retailer program to help small store owners purchase and carry fresh agricultural products in areas without grocery stores.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...