ST. PAUL — The head of the state's Department of Human Services again took the hot seat on Tuesday, Dec. 10, to share her progress in the job and to field criticism from lawmakers.
Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead came up to deliver her 90-day report again, this time for Minnesota senators. And now, at 99 days on the job, Harpstead said she hoped to continue building public trust in the department.
The comments came after Harpstead spent her first three months sizing up problems at DHS and attempting to triage serious issues moving forward. Over the summer, top-level leadership shakeups at the department and news of years-old misappropriation of federal funds fueled turmoil and debates about how to stabilize the department.
Members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee said they were glad to see the new leader prioritizing the concerns of department employees and the trustworthiness of its work, but they raised concerns about the transparency at the agency.
Here are three of the biggest takeaways from the hearing.
Ham example raises questions about accountability
Harpstead last week told another legislative panel that a months-long investigation into the former DHS inspector general had closed with no public findings and no disciplinary action. And Carolyn Ham, the former inspector, was reassigned to another area of the department at her request.
The lack of discipline triggered frustration for Republican lawmakers who called it a "bombshell" and on Tuesday, committee Chairwoman Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said the lack of transparency and accountability around the issue raised questions about the department's commitment to building trust.
"The decision to retain her, even if she's not sent back to OIG (Office of Inspector General), raises questions," Benson said. "How are we going to get comfortable that you are really looking for top-tier talent when someone with that level of controversy is being retained?"
Ham has said the investigation has cleared her of any wrongdoing.
Harpstead said she'd read the investigation's closing report and while she couldn't speak to details because it was a human resources matter, she agreed with the decision to keep Ham on at the department. At a broader level, Harpstead said building up trust would take time.
"I think the only way that I think you'll be able to see we have the best talent in place is to see it over time and to see it perform and watch our team as we go forward," Harpstead said.
No penalties for improper spending
Department employees and officials who oversaw the approval of federal funds for unapproved payments for medication-assisted addiction treatments issued to counties and tribes won't face consequences, officials said. And that's due in large part to poor documentation of decision-making at the department.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor in October reported that "troubling dysfunction" over a decade allowed for the improper payment of more than $29 million to two tribes for substance abuse treatment. And though it violates state laws for documenting decision-making, those in the chain of command who green-lighted the payments weren't recorded in state documents.
Without evidence of fraud and clear ways to trace who approved the overpayments, it will be hard to discipline those involved, Benson said.
"Generally they're not held to account," Benson said. "There is not specific action that can be taken against people who are former employees unless they committed the fraud themselves."
Harpstead last week said it's unlikely that former employees or employees will face disciplinary action, based on current findings because they'd been using processes that set them up to act inappropriately.
"The people at the Department of Human Services need a better process and they need to know how it's supposed to work and they need to follow that," Harpstead said. "If they haven't been given a robust process to use to make these decisions, it's hard to reprimand them. They're doing what they believe their jobs are."
Moving forward, Harpstead has said the department will require two signatures to authorize funding. The two-step approval is aimed at heading off unauthorized payments.
Walz aims to hold tribes, counties harmless for DHS mistakes
Walz reiterated this week his desire to hold counties and tribes harmless for overpayments they received from DHS for their administration of substance abuse treatments.
At a conference with Minnesota county officials, the governor said he'd go to lawmakers with a request to find a way to pay back the federal government that wouldn't hit counties or tribal governments. The commitment comes after county and tribal officials told the state they wouldn't be able to afford the nearly $40 million and shouldn't have to pay for the state's mistakes.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, on Tuesday came with a message from his district: “Just bringing a message to you from Anoka County," he told Harpstead. "They’re not paying."
Harpstead said she is reviewing potential avenues for repaying the federal government. Minnesota law currently requires the state to claw back the funds from counties and tribes, but Walz has asked that lawmakers amend it, given this case.
Benson and others, meanwhile, said the department should find areas to cut from its budget to pay back the feds.