Human Services head passionate about the chance to lead an agency that ‘tugs at my heartstrings’

Lucinda Jesson
Lucinda Jesson

Lucinda Jesson keeps learning things about her new job.

“Just this morning [Thursday], I learned that I’m the guardian for 1,000 children,” she said. “I can’t wait to bring that up over dinner with my husband tonight.”

The commissioner of the state’s Human Services department wears a lot of hats. Those 1,000 kids are children of people who have lost their parental rights. It’s up to the state to make sure they’re safely cared for.

The commissioner also is responsible for programs ranging from the so-called treatment center for sexual offenders at Moose Lake to caring for the health of the indigent to providing services for fading senior citizens to food programs for the poor.

And then there’s the whole administration of a bureaucracy of 7,000 people and oversight of how billions of state and federal dollars are being spent.

What a deal: more work, less pay
For this, Jesson, who was appointed to the position last week, will be expected to work staggering hours and be paid $108,000, assuming her appointment is approved by the Republican-controlled Senate.

She says her husband, Peter Knapp, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, summed her appointment thusly: “You want to work twice as hard and get paid less.”

The position is exactly what she wanted, says Jesson, who has been a former law partner, deputy attorney general, Hennepin County prosecutor and, most recently, a Hamline University professor.

“This is what I’m passionate about,” she says.

And she starts rattling off the good things the department does for the state’s neediest people.

Jesson, 52, represents the clear difference between appointments so far made by Dayton and the appointments made by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty filled commissioners’ offices with a herd of old Republican pols, all of whom seemed to share Pawlenty’s underlying belief that there was “too much government” in Minnesota. With the exception of Rep. Tony Sertich, who Dayton appointed to head the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation board, Dayton has appointed no current or former elected DFL officials. He has sought out people who share his belief in the value of government.

While Pawlenty appointed people whose names were familiar to those who follow government, Dayton has opted for a series of people like Jesson who, for the most part, are political unknowns.

Yes, she understands politics. Her father once headed the Arkansas Democratic Party at about the time a young climber, Bill Clinton, first was running for governor.

On the political periphery
In her 28 years in Minnesota, Jesson has been on the periphery of DFL politics. She headed a search committee on behalf of Sen. Amy Klobuchar to fill the vacancy in the U.S. attorney’s office. She was brought onto the Dayton transition team to be a leader of its “outreach” program, which was designed to seek potential, non-traditional candidates for positions in the administration.

Before taking on that job, she said, she barely knew Dayton. But, in watching him interview candidates for administration jobs, she became intrigued.

“I saw that he was very engaging and asked incredibly good questions,” she says. “I quickly became impressed.”

Apparently Dayton became impressed with Jesson, too. She was at a conference in San Francisco when she received a call from the governor’s office.

Would she be interested in the commissioner’s job?

She was.

“I will say that you don’t take one of these jobs unless you intend to work very hard,” she says. “These jobs require hard work. These jobs deserve people who expect to work hard.”

The Human Services department was a favorite target of Pawlenty, which absorbs 30 percent of the state’s annual budget. Growth of Human Services, especially in the area of health care, is “unsustainable,” Pawlenty often said.

Seldom mentioned as one of the reasons for the growth was the dramatic economic collapse that put more Minnesotans in need of government services than ever before.

Given the state’s projected $6.2 billion deficit, the huge Human Services budget and Republican legislative control, Jesson almost certainly will have to preside over budget cutting.

“There’s going to be pain,” she says.

But unlike her predecessors who seemed enamored of Pawlenty charts on the spiraling costs of human services, she comes to the job with empathy for the people her department serves. One of her missions, she believes, is to get the word out to taxpayers on just what services are being provided.

“One of the things I’ve liked about living in Minnesota is at the bottom of their hearts, I think most Minnesotans do feel an obligation to take care of those most vulnerable,” she says.

Does that make Jesson just another soft liberal?

“I don’t think you can say that anyone who has been a prosecutor and who has raised four sons is a softy,” she said.

Long history with health care issues
Jesson has been involved in health care issues since being assigned by the attorney general to work for Human Services in the mid-1990s. In her most recent job, she’s headed Hamline’s health law institute.

She has done studies on the role private companies can play in encouraging their employees to live healthier, noting that a small group of people who have poor lifestyle habits tend to drive up the costs of health care for all.

“I think all of us have a personal responsibility for our health,” she said. “I’ve supported programs in the private sector that offer incentives to employees who do things to lower their blood pressure and exercise.”

But she doesn’t believe it is time to place some of those private sector incentive programs into the public health realm.

“We need to learn what works in the private sector,” she says. “We should not experiment with the public sector.”

She said that West Virginia recently did attempt an experiment on offering health care incentives to its poor. The state offered enhanced benefits for those clients who successfully followed certain criteria, such as diet goals.

Jesson says she saw the criteria — and came to a realization.

“I looked at the list [of criteria] and I couldn’t say I was doing all of those things,” she says. “Here I was, married, have a car, good incomes and I didn’t know if I could do all those things and I don’t live in the middle of rural West Virginia. I applaud employers who try to incentivize their employees to be healthier, but we don’t know what works. We should not experiment on the most vulnerable.”

The pace of the new job will be frenetic even on its mellow days.

One of her first missions will be to speed up the process of moving many of the state’s health care programs from the state to the federal Medical Assistance program, a step that became possible under federal health care reform. The Pawlenty administration claimed making that transfer would take nine months. Dayton has declared that time lag unacceptable.

“I believe we can significantly shorten that time frame,” Jesson says.

Additionally, next week she’s to begin meeting with Republican legislative leaders who see her department as a big funding cut target. She also plans to set aside time each week to meet with small groups within the department “to learn what people do.”

She also wants to make a monthly trip to the offices the department operates throughout the state.

And then, there are those 1,000 kids to get to know.

“Other people see challenges,” she says. “I see opportunities. This agency tugs at my heart strings.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/17/2011 - 03:09 pm.

    I congratulate Ms. Jesson and hope that she will familiarize herself with the Minnesota Health Plan developed by Senator John Marty. All care deemed necessary by patients and their doctors would be covered – drugs, eyeglasses, dental care.

    Health care for all Minnesota residents would be paid for with progressive taxes (premiums) charged individuals and businesses, but delivered privately by the doctors individuals choose for themselves. Federal Medicare/Medicaid funds would be paid into the health care fund as well.

    Those who lose their jobs will not lose access to health care in the process. Those who are homeless and mentally ill will receive the help they need to manage their illnesses.

    The program and its fund would likely be managed by a group chosen from among members of elected county boards from around the state. Never again could a governor or legislature remove access to care in order to balance the budget or for any ideological reason.

  2. Submitted by Eileen Weber on 01/20/2011 - 02:27 am.

    Commissioner Jesson says, “We should not experiment on the most vulnerable.” Amen. In living up to that credo, she should reject any further exposure of our neediest Minnesotans to the excessive profiteering the HMOs are enjoying at their expense. The leaked HMOs plan to increase their already-generous bottom lines by cutting necessary care to our most disabled neighbors is corporate greed at its most loathsome.

    With the much needed expansion of Medical Assistance to 95,000 more people here, Jesson has a choice: (a) continue the irresponsible practice of the former administration in blindly handing over the management of MA enrollees to the HMOs, who either can’t or won’t account for the $3 billion in tax dollars they have already received, OR (b) get more for our money – and more care for struggling families – by removing the needless, unaccountable, private corporate insurance middlemen from our public programs. Counties in western Minnesota have already banded together and cut the wasteful HMOs out of the equation. In so doing, county-based groups like Prime West are providing better coverage for more people, saving money, and even reimbursing providers (such as doctors, nurses, dentists, etc.) better. That’s the future the rest of the state should share.

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