Benson: We need answers and a reform plan from the Minnesota Department of Human Services

The department and its employees lost, either by error or fraud, more than $300 million in the last three years. 

A $48 million mistake is kind of a big deal.

Yet here in Minnesota it’s just the latest item on a long list of problems coming from the Department of Human Services.

It started in 2016 with eligibility problems in Medicaid and MinnesotaCare that led to $271 million being clawed back by the federal government.

In April of last year, DHS wrote off $30 million in MinnesotaCare premiums because their existing software couldn’t reconcile the payments.

The following month, we heard testimony of widespread fraud in the Child Care Assistance Program, estimated at more than $6 million by the Legislative Auditors’ office.

Then a series of data breaches exposed the personal information of up to 35,000 Minnesotans.

The department recently shocked the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the White Earth Nation by telling them to repay $25 million in overpayments, even though the tribes had spent the money according to DHS guidelines.

Which leads us to this week’s round of overpayments — $48 million worth of Medicaid payments the federal government is requesting be paid back for improper use. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles testified at our last committee hearing, “DHS consumes more of our attention and our resources than any other state agency.”

This is not to mention the personnel problems that lead to resignations, un-resignations, re-resignations and three commissioners in less than a year.

As chair of the Senate Health and Human Services committee, I’ve dedicated time this interim to getting to the bottom of what has become an embarrassingly long list of failures and disappointments from the Department of Human Services. We will meet again on Sept. 4. And in the interest of transparency and accountability with the public, I’m writing this commentary to allow incoming Commissioner Jodi Harpstead time to prepare for her first legislative hearing.

During one of her first public interviews, Harpstead suggested moving past these scandals and failures and focusing on the “good work” done by the agency and its employees. Perhaps the first thing she should do is ask to be fully informed about any other known issues at DHS, then meet with her boss Gov. Tim Walz and the committee chairs to discuss the problems. It’s time to get ahead of the whistleblowers and media reports and get an honest assessment of the current challenges.

Let’s start things off on the right foot and work together to address the problems head on. Because despite their best intentions, DHS and its employees lost, either by error or fraud, more than $300 million in the last three years.

That’s not the “good work” we expect to continue.

No one wants to talk about their failures. It’s not pleasant to think of how it may affect the morale of the nearly 7,000 employees at DHS. But neither is it pleasant for typical Minnesotans to continue to hear about the problems at DHS.

The first thing we need to hear from Harpstead next week is her plan to turn the agency around in the next 90 days. Instilling accountability, transparency, and integrity into each of those employees should be a top priority. No one should feel like they may lose their job for speaking out, and no one should feel so sure of their job they don’t bother to do their very best every day.

I look forward to hearing about a plan to turn things around at DHS. I assume Gov. Walz chose Harpstead for this job because of her previous experience in the private sector and with this agency. The Senate will continue to provide oversight and accountability on behalf of the taxpayers, but we will also do our best to direct the department toward a better path forward.

This editorial originally appeared in the Star Tribune on August 29, 2019.

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