CHARLESTON, W.Va. —CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia dropped plans Tuesday 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 no longer would end enrollment into the Mountain Heart program 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.
Melissa Holman, director of the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Day Care Center, was one of the local leaders in the effort to stop the changes. She said Tuesday night that her voice was getting hoarse and her cell phone battery was nearly dead from sharing the news with staff, friends and parents.
“It is so empowering to know that we stood up for those kids, that we stood up for those families and we stood up for ourselves — and we won,” Holman said.
Holman said it was thrilling to know that Tomblin heard their voices.
“It’s great to know that he heard us,” she said. “He made the only choice he could — the right one.”
Holman and Michelle Gallihugh, president of the Regional Directors Association of the Eastern Panhandle Child Care Centers, helped stage a rally in Martinsburg on July 13 to protest the changes.
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 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 2010-11 budget year, at a cost of $54 million, according to DHHR figures.
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.
Holman said she was driving home from the child care center in Shepherdstown when she received the news. Her board president asked her to pull over before she shared Tomblin’s decision.
Holman said she was planning to drive to Charleston Wednesday for the rally at the Capitol.
“I am so thrilled for these families. What a relief,” Holman said.
She added that there are still things to work out, including helping parents deal with the rising copayments.
Holman, who has worked at the Shepherdstown center for 12 years, including the last seven as director, said her center has 95 children enrolled, including 50 who take advantage of Mountain Heart.
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.
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 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.
Tri-State Editor Bill Kohler contributed to this story.