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DHS head says agency cleaning up issues ‘that go back 10 or 20’ years

Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead’s message to members of the Senate Health and Human Services committees: Things at the agency aren’t as good as they should be — but they also aren’t as bad as they’ve been portrayed. 

Committee chair Sen. Michelle Benson questioning Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead on Tuesday.
Committee chair Sen. Michelle Benson questioning Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

New Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead continued her trust-building tour Tuesday, spending her 99th day on the job with members of the Senate Health and Human Services committee. 

Her message? Things at the massive agency aren’t as good as they should be but aren’t as bad as they have been presented in news reports and by GOP lawmakers. Still, regardless of varying assessments of the condition of the agency, she’s fixing it. “We have been addressing some issues that go back 10 or 20 years,” she said. “Gov. Walz hired me up to clean this up and reform processes we can all count on.”

Among the problems are overpayments to two tribal nations for opioid treatment programs and to counties for substance abuse treatments. Under federal rules, the money must be paid back, and current law puts the counties and tribes on the hook, though Gov. Tim Walz has said he is hoping to resolve the repayment issue without that happening. 

Harpstead apologized for the problems DHS caused for what she termed the agency’s “community partners.”

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The perception of an agency in disarray was fueled by the resignation over the summer of Walz’s first human services commissioner, Tony Lourey, which came after two top deputies announced their own resignations. Both rescinded their resignations after Lourey’s departure, but one — Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson — resigned again shortly after a temporary commissioner was installed.

Harpstead is the third commissioner under Walz and the fourth in a year, counting former Gov. Mark Dayton’s DHS head, Emily Johnson Piper. 

But despite news reports of problems — many of which, Harpstead pointed out, were uncovered by her agency — 7,200-plus of the 7,300 agency employees have been doing their work unaffected by what critics have called an agency in chaos.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” she said. “I want to thank every employee, auditor and manager who found these issues.” 

She pledged not to retaliate against workers or suppress their reports of problems, something that employees and lawmakers say had been common. 

But in what she prefaced as the “total picture,” she said: “DHS is not in free fall, in crisis, in total chaos.” While saying that every dime matters, Harpstead compared the $106 million in overpayments over six years to the $96.1 billion in payments the agency made to various recipients and providers. She said she is putting in management systems and hiring new leaders as part of what she terms Operation Swiss Watch, with the intent of having it running smoothly.

Commissioner Jodi Harpstead apologized for the problems caused what she termed the agency’s “community partners.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Commissioner Jodi Harpstead apologized for the problems DHS caused for what she termed the agency’s “community partners.”
Harpstead is treading carefully through problems not of her own making but that she is now responsible for, and she appears to be trying to take those issues seriously if not as seriously as legislative Republicans and other agency critics portray them as.

A sequence from her presentation Tuesday offered an example of how she is navigating the task: “I would ask you to help us with the unexciting work of government processes,” she said, noting that bills she will ask for next session “are not flashy bills, they don’t make headlines, they won’t appeal to constituents necessarily, but they are needed.”

And repeating what she said to a House committee last week, Harpstead said the issues at DHS predated both her and Walz. “Most of the payment issues we’re addressing now didn’t happen in 2019; they went viral in 2019 and we’ve put stopgaps in place,” she said.

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Republicans in the Legislature — reluctantly perhaps — gave Harpstead three months to settle in before calling her back to testify. Harpstead used some of that time to make personal contacts with key lawmakers, something the Senate Health and Human Services chair, Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, and DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis thanked her for Thursday. (At a previous hearing, Senate Finance Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, complained that Walz hadn’t called her to give her a heads up about initiatives at the agency.)

Legislative Republicans, especially the GOP-controlled Senate, are walking a fine line between wanting to keep pressure on a DFL administration and needing to be part of the solution.

Benson Tuesday tempered her criticism but did disagree with one Harpstead decision. Carolyn Ham had been put on leave and investigated for her role at the agency and its Child Care Assistance Program; she was eventually absolved, and Harpstead chose to keep her on staff, though in a different role. 

Harpstead said she wouldn’t fire someone who hadn’t been given adequate tools to do their job well, but says personnel rules keep her from being specific about the investigation.

“It’ll cause a gap in trust for some time to come,” Benson said of Harpstead’s decision. “Frankly, when you have six layers of management and no one’s checking, that’s not because resources weren’t available. It’s because people didn’t know how to do their job. And you should not be a manager if you can’t both serve and be accountable.”

And Sen. Jim Abeler, the Anoka Republican who is chair of the Human Services Reform Committee, characterized Harpstead’s testimony as “nothing to see here, we’ve got it,” and said he still thinks the agency is “off track.” 

DFLers, as well, are in something of a box in their response to the agency’s problems. They appear unwilling to dismiss problems that have been exposed by the news media, by the Legislative Auditor and by the agency itself. And DFL constituencies such as tribal nations and county governments have been ill-affected by the agency’s failures, being on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in DHS overpayments.

But they also have displayed a desire to push back against attacks on the agency. Hayden said he hoped Harpstead would investigate complaints raised by whistleblowers and not accept them as “gospel.” 

And Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said she is worried that the services provided by tribes and counties with what are now deemed to be improper payments will be cut back.