Senate Republicans hold hearings on DHS dysfunction

Senate Health and Human Services Committees held a joint hearing to gather testimony from Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, and tribal nations today. The Legislative Auditor, Jim Nobles, gave a review of his report on the overpayments for opioid treatment, which was released yesterday. The report found, “troubling dysfunction” in DHS, with “serious financial and legal problems… that will be difficult to resolve,” regarding payments that were made at a higher rate than allowed.

“Hearing directly from Nobles that DHS is dysfunctional and disorganized this week was troubling,” Senator Jim Abeler (R- Anoka), Chair of the Senate Human Services Reform committee said. Speaking to Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, he told her, “This isn’t just about the money, it’s a matter of whether or not I can trust the department going forward. I appreciate your swiss watch analogy, but I’m worried the department has holes like swiss cheese.” 

Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa), weighed in as well, saying, As we’ve seen time and time again, DHS lacks accountability and has become a bloated bureaucratic department. Not only is there a massive waste of taxpayer dollars, but it also could place the state in significant legal challenges as DHS attempts to recoup the overpayments from the tribal nations.”

“These hearings sadly demonstrate a series of dysfunctional issues within DHS,” said Senator Mary Kiffmeyer (R-Big Lake), a member of the joint committee. “Someone should have spoken up about these problems long ago. I am grateful for the OLA’s work to expose this $29 million failure of management brought to light by an employee. As we move forward, we will remain vigilant and demand improved accountability and leadership from DHS.”

“For the most part, Commissioner Harpstead said all the right things in yesterday’s hearing,” said Sen. Michelle Benson (R-Ham Lake), chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. “Acknowledging they made errors and need to clean up their processes is an important step. One issue on which I will continue to demand a straightforward answer, however, is what will happen when the federal government asks Minnesota to return the $29 million in overpayments. Will DHS attempt to bury it in a forecast adjustment? Or will they be open and upfront? If it’s the former, I will have serious problems. I will be watching carefully to make sure they follow through on their promises and their accounting for these illegal payments is transparent.”

Yesterday, Benson indicated major cultural changes need to happen at DHS. “If you want to know how much bureaucracy and unaccountability costs state government, look no further than DHS,” she said. “Several levels of management were either too incompetent or too indifferent to check for and identify obviously erroneous payments.” The OLA report yesterday indicated that no one in DHS has taken responsibility for the overpayments, and there is no documentation to determine who made the decision for the higher payment structure to the tribes.  “There are six managers between the Opioid Treatment Authority Representative and the Commissioner,” Benson continued. “All of them failed—miserably. If none of them are going to take responsibility, none of them should keep their jobs.”

The joint committee also received an update on a streamlined process for fraud reports on CCAP providers. In 2018, the same committee held joint hearings to learn more about millions of dollars of fraudulent payments made by DHS for kids who did not actually receive childcare. The OLA later released two special reports on the CCAP programs, one on internal controls for the CCAP program and one on the reported fraud in 2019.