Senate Republicans ask for 90-day plan from new DHS commissioner

The Senate Health and Human Services and Human Services Reform Committees heard from newly appointed Commissioner Jodi Harpstead for the first time today. On August 30, Senator Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake) made an initial request from Harpstead for the hearing.

“The first thing we need to hear from Harpstead is her plan to turn the agency around in the next 90 days,” Benson wrote in an editorial appearing in the Star Tribune. “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.”

Harpstead acknowledged to the joint committee her first priority was to develop trust among agency staff and rebuilding trust with the legislature and the public after months of fraud, resignations, and whistleblower accusations dominated headlines from the department. After Harpstead’s opening comments, Senate Republicans provided additional feedback, questions, and advice for going forward:

“I encourage you to find a way to rebuild the partnership with each of the members in the legislature,” Senator Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) told the Commissioner. “The amount of information coming from DHS to the legislature has been the smallest amount that can be given; more comprehensive information to us would rebuild trust. If there is more bad news, let’s hear it from you,” he suggested to the Commissioner.

“As I’ve been throughout my district this summer it’s come up over and over again, people asking me, ‘What in the world in going on at DHS?’” Senator Andrew Mathews (R-Milaca) said. “My answer has been to say, ‘I don’t know, because we’re not getting any answers,’” he continued. “Just as it would be irresponsible for a doctor to ignore the symptoms and just focus on the good bodily functions you have, it would be irresponsible to ignore the symptoms at DHS.

“My constituents want to know who is going to pay the feds back?” Senator Carla Nelson (R- Rochester) asked. “There is a lingering bill coming to Minnesotans because of the billing that was suggested by DHS to the tribal nations and other providers. So, the question is, ‘How much? How long? And where is the money going to come from?’”

“I hope you are empowered by the strength of the governor standing behind you, particularly on the audit on how funds are handled,” Benson told Harpstead. “I appreciate you want to rebuild the department to rebuild trust. Employees have been reaching out to us, trying to be anonymous because they are afraid. They give enough information so there is veracity, but there is something wrong when people are afraid of telling the truth. An employee culture where people are afraid is not going to be a productive culture.”  

Harpstead assumed the Commissioner position on September 3 and is the third commissioner appointed by Governor Walz to lead the agency since January. DHS is the largest state agency, employing nearly 7,000 people and serving 1 million Minnesotans. This is the second joint committee hearing over the interim to address concerns about increasing costs at the agency, reports of fraud and abuse with state and federal tax dollars, and disruptive turnover in leadership positions.

Watch the full committee hearing here.