DHS hearing

Acting Human Services Commissioner Pam Wheelock, right, speaks with Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, at left and Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, at center, following a joint hearing on issues at the Department of Human Services. (Dana Ferguson/Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL — The state shouldn’t look to the Legislature to help it pay a $25 million bill to the federal government, the chair of a key committee said Tuesday.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and she said lawmakers shouldn’t have to allocate $25 million in additional funds to cover overpayments to two tribes.

Internal memos from the Department of Human Services made public last month showed that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the White Earth Nation received $25.3 million in excess payments for medically assisted treatments covered through Medicaid over several years. In some cases, the state said, the tribes billed for reimbursement at the roughly $455-a-day rate for medication-assisted therapy when the services administered outside a clinical setting should’ve been billed at around $61 per day.

“The taxpayers didn’t make this mistake,” Benson said. “They’re not the ones who used the judgment to cause the overpayments, why should they be held responsible?”

Leaders from the tribes said the Department of Human Services was unclear in explaining how the treatments to help recover from opioid addiction should be billed and expressed frustration about the lack of meaningful government-to-government consultation with the state.

“Had there been meaningful government-to-government communication, we probably would not find ourselves in the position we’re in today,” White Lake Nation Vice Chairman Eugene “Umsy” Tibbetts said.

And DHS’ top leader said additional review would need to be done before it became clear whether the state or the tribes were at fault in the overpayments and who would have to refund the overpayments to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The dispute was one of several to arise during a 3.5-hour hearing on Tuesday, at which Republican state senators sought answers about recent top-level turnover at DHS, reports of suppressed whistleblower concerns, slowed fraud investigations and the future of the department.

“This is not a witch hunt, this is not a rodeo, this is not a gotcha thing,” Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who co-chaired the committee said. “This is us doing our due diligence.”

‘There is no scandal,’ agency head says

The hearing came a day after Gov. Tim Walz announced that Jodi Harpstead, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, would take over as commissioner in September. Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock has been holding down the leadership post since former Commissioner Tony Lourey resigned just under a month ago.

Two other deputy commissioners with decades of experience between them threatened to step down prior to Lourey’s abrupt departure but stayed on after Lourey and his chief of staff resigned.

And also last month, it was reported that the department’s inspector tasked with investigating fraud in the Child Care Assistance Program had been on paid leave for four months though the probe hadn’t started. In the days after that news broke, new department leadership reassigned Inspector Carolyn Ham to another position while the investigation proceeds.

Lourey, his chief of staff, Ham and the two deputy commissioners were asked to testify but declined to come before the committee or to submit written testimony.

Wheelock, the acting commissioner, defended the ongoing work at the department that takes in over $18 billion and serves more than 1 million Minnesotans. And she offered few answers about what fueled the leadership shake-up, reported overbilling or delayed an investigation into a top department inspector general before she took the position in July.

“I have not found any issue about impropriety. I have not found any issue about any kind of criminal activity,” Wheelock said. “There is no scandal. There is no chaos. I think it’s time to move on and let these people have some sense of personal privacy in their lives.”

Lawmakers resolve to ‘keep digging’

The hearing was an initial foray into “chipping away” at problems at the department, Benson and others said. With various data practices requests still yet to be returned, she said the information yet to be revealed likely would guide additional hearings. And she said she was prepared to subpoena witnesses if they refused to testify.

“This is going to be a chipping-away process so we gained more information about what we are going to chip away at,” Benson, the health and human services committee chair, said. “We are starting the opening up of the can of worms and the only way to solve it is to keep digging.”

Other DHS employees or former employees shared with the committee their concerns about what they’d faced at the department. The former Medicaid program director told the panel bureaucrats in the department rejected advice from medical professionals and abruptly dismissed him in July.

And Faye Bernstein, a DHS compliance officer, said she was put on temporary leave when she raised concerns about compliance in state contracts. She was later allowed to return to her post and appeared Tuesday on a vacation day. She said she’d received notice ahead of the hearing that she could be terminated for her comments to lawmakers.

“The content — the words saying that I could be discharged for this — that is threatening, just the words are,” Bernstein said.

Legislative auditor Jim Nobles said many of his probes are directed at DHS and he has recently been asked to investigate the overpayments to the two tribes. But more needs to be done to ensure adequate oversight takes place, he said.

“We cannot audit our way to good government,” Nobles told members of the panel. “Audits are important, but you really have to have integrity built into the day-to-day operations of departments and agencies.”

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy

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