Sen. Michelle Benson

State Sen. Michelle Benson

Minnesota’s Department of Human Services is in complete turmoil.

I don’t make that statement lightly. Minnesota has a reputation for effective government, but DHS has been an obvious and notable stain on that reputation over the last several years.

I serve as the chair of the Senate committee responsible for overseeing the department, and even I sometimes have trouble keeping track of it all. The agency’s track record over the last few years is frightening — we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in fraud and waste, multiple scandals and numerous privacy breaches. Let’s review:

• January 2016: Medicaid and MinnesotaCare eligibility problems cost taxpayers $271 million.

• July 2017: PCA Medicaid fraud cost Minnesota taxpayers $7.7 million.

• April 2018: DHS writes off $30 million in MinnesotaCare premiums due to a software problem.

• May 2018: Reports expose substantial CCAP oversight problems.

• July 2018 to April 2019: Three separate privacy breaches expose the data of 35,000 Minnesotans.

• August 2019: News reports find Minnesota owes the federal government $48 million because DHS made improper payments to some treatment facilities.

• August and September 2019: Reports find DHS overpaid two Indian bands by almost $30 million for substance abuse treatment.

The agency has also experienced a series of staff controversies. This summer alone, the agency saw multiple leadership resignations, unresignations, and reresignations; unexpected job eliminations for career professionals; and employee accusations of retaliation for reporting wrongdoing and bias. Discouraging signs for an agency already in crisis.

There are reasons to be optimistic though. In August Gov. Walz appointed a new commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, to lead the agency. As I told her, Commissioner Harpstead’s top priorities should be instilling accountability, transparency, and integrity in agency employees and restoring the public’s trust. It’s a big job, but with her experience she should be up to the task.

So far Commissioner Harpstead has been saying all the right things. I have had several conversations with her, and I believe she understands the severity of the situation and is committed to righting the ship. When she called to tell me about the overpayment to the tribes before it was publicly revealed, it was a welcome act of transparency. When she told me she plans to meet with the tribes to figure out a resolution that holds the tribes harmless for those overpayments, I took it as a sign of her seriousness.

Of course, her actions will always speak louder than her words. Senate Republicans take our oversight responsibility seriously, and we will keep our eye on the ball to make sure there is follow through.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, represents Senate District 31 in the Minnesota Senate. In Anoka County the district includes all or parts of Andover, Bethel, Columbus, East Bethel, St. Francis, Ham Lake, Linwood Township, Nowthen and Oak Grove.

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