The last time I wrote a column about the turmoil at the Department of Human Services was the end of July. At the time, the agency was in the midst of significant staff chaos. Two deputy commissioners had resigned, then un-resigned. The top commissioner, Tony Lourey, and his chief of staff resigned. And the career Medicaid director had his job unexpectedly terminated and reported “serious systemic issues” at the department.

This is to say nothing of ongoing pervasive fraud within the Childcare Assistance program, numerous data privacy breaches, and several instances of fraud and waste that cost taxpayers millions.

Four months later, I’m sorry to report the culture at DHS has not improved one bit.

Here are some of the new controversies to come out of DHS since my last column:

• The department admitted to overpaying three northern Minnesota tribes $29 million for Medicaid services.

• DHS overbilled MinnesotaCare enrollees by almost $2 million, then was forced to issue refunds.

• DHS announced that Medicaid paid $3.7 million for benefits to dead people.

• A nonpartisan audit found “troubling dysfunction” at DHS led to overpayments to the tribes.

• An investigation found the $600 million MnChoices system for disability assistance crashes regularly, has a 32% error rate when determining eligibility, and cost 10 times more than expected.

• Reports surfaced that DHS and other state agencies routinely break the law when awarding new contracts. It happened 1,800 times last year alone.

• DHS found an additional $22 million in improper spending that has to be repaid to the federal government. $13 million of this took place even after the errors were brought to light.

• DHS gave bad instructions to counties and tribes to collect more than $700,000 in overpayments to poor people, and now that money must be returned.

• DHS’ failure to issue timely instructions resulted in $624,000 in improper payments to foster homes that didn’t meet federal background check requirements.

Again, those all happened in the last four months.

I have had serious problems with the culture at DHS going back to the child care assistance scandal. I have voiced my complaints and pushed DHS leadership to reevaluate their operations, but I have met quite a bit of resistance.

Even as more and more issues came to light this summer and fall, the Senate held several investigative hearings. DHS leadership mostly acknowledged that there are problems but only offered vague promises to fix them. We have heard little in the way of specifics.

The new DHS commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, does seem sincere about her desire to turn the agency around. She is still fairly new on the job, but I will be watching carefully to make sure there is measurable progress being made, and that it is being made fast.

The Senate has oversight authority, but the Department of Human Services is an agency of the executive branch. The ultimate responsibility for its success or failure lies with Gov. Tim Walz. He needs to step up, take responsibility, and fix it.

Expect this to be a major topic next session, particularly if we don’t receive a specific plan to improve the agency.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your feedback and your ideas. Please let me know what you think at 651-296-0284 or sen.john.jasinski@senate.mn.

Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, is the state senator for District 24, which includes most of Steele County, as well as portions of Dodge, Rice and Waseca counties. Reach him at sen.john.jasinski@senate.mn or 651-296-0284.

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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