PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's Department of Social Services Secretary Laurie Gill is calling the recently concluded legislative session a positive one from her agency's perspective.

"Legislative sessions when there's a lot of money available are interesting because when there's no money there isn't as much discussion," said Gill on Tuesday, April 20, during a meeting of the Board of Social Services. "But when there's a lot of monies available like there were this year with the federal dollars flowing in because of the pandemic, the discussions are entirely different."

The state board heard a highlight of legislative bills that moved — or didn't move — that held DSS's blessing, including the approval of a new full-time employee to assist with the state's growing adoption program.

Since 2010, the state has seen a 37% increase in the number of children placed into adoptive homes, reported Pamela Bennet, director for the state division of child protection services.

Laura Ringling, division chief for behavioral health services, also reported on the demise of House Bill 1151, which sought to create "peer support services" for individuals with behavioral health disorders.

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Ringling noted while the measure died before the House Committee on Appropriations, she believed "internally" the agency was "exploring how we might implement" a pilot program using federal grants.

"We do believe this is a valuable service that we should add here in South Dakota," Ringling said.

Brenda Tidball-Zeltinger, DSS deputy secretary, also commented on the passage of Senate Bill 7, "to permit a government agency to qualify as a victim for purposes of restitution in criminal cases," which was signed by Gov. Kristi Noem into law in early February.

Tidball-Zeltinger said the bill resulted from an August state supreme court case in which the justices ruled in a case involving a man who stabbed another man and was ordered to reimburse his Medicaid for paying the victim's medical expenses.

"It's a somewhat 'clean-up' bill," Tidball said, "But it addresses a fairly unique situation in our Medicaid program."

The DSS secretary also provided an overview to the board on the influx of federal dollars and flexibilities some services are benefiting from thanks to the recently passed COVID-19 relief bill in Congress and signed by President Biden.

Certain Medicaid flexibilities include extended supplies of oxygen, reducing thresholds for filling prescriptions, and an extension of expanded supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits.

Gill said so-far during the pandemic, DSS had provided $16.6 million of food assistance to 29,000 families, including 58,000 children.

"By being able to push the dollars that were coming into (us) from the federal government, we were able to pump it out to the families," Gill said.

She said beneficiaries of the low-income food program are now able to digitally participate with certain vendors.

"Folks can be at home and they can order food from Walmart or Amazon and have it be delivered," Gill said.

She noted grocer Hy-Vee "is in discussion" to set-up the same mechanism.