Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse within Minnesota’s Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. Tim Walz makes it much worse. Gov. Walz made the situation much worse by picking Jodi Harpstead to take over as commissioner of HHS in September.

Commissioner Harpstead is currently employed as the CEO of Lutheran Social Services, aka LSS. For the past 5+ years, LSS has specialized in the Refugee Resettlement program. That means that they’ve specialized in hiding important details about who was coming into Minnesota’s communities. This isn’t speculation. It’s well-documented fact.

When former City Councilman Jeff Johnson participated in a discussion on the refugee resettlement program, he expressed frustration with LSS:

To summarize that meeting, what I saw, four things were occurring. One, we have a nonprofit religious organization, OK, taking federal dollars, and they were pocketing approximately $1,000 per refugee. The allocation’s about 3,300 (dollars), but they got to keep about $1,000 per refugee, OK? They were not being transparent with the public, and it got to the point where they actually had a deputy at the door monitoring who was coming into the meetings. And I said you need to open up these meetings because you’re using federal dollars, you’re a nonprofit organization, and to me it was becoming apparent that they were acting like a for-profit corporation.

LSS was the volag running the meetings. Now, Gov. Walz has tapped the CEO of LSS to be the commissioner of HHS. Saying that HHS is embroiled in a crisis is understatement. Part of the crisis is rampant fraud within HHS.

When HHS Commissioner Tony Lourey abruptly resigned last month, he didn’t say why he was leaving, other than saying that the Department needed new leadership that he wasn’t capable of providing. The week prior to Lourey’s resignation, his 2 deputies resigned without an explanation. They’ve since returned to their positions.

If ever there was a department that needed a massive infusion of transparency, HHS is it. Hiring a woman whose current organization specializes in hiding things from government officials isn’t a first step towards building confidence with the public.

This hiring smacks of arrogance in the worst way. This is Gov. Walz’s attempt to stiff-arm the legislature, at least the part that gives a damn about providing oversight. (At this point, the DFL House isn’t interested in providing oversight.)

This week, Senate Republicans held a 3.5 hour-long oversight hearing into why “the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the White Earth Nation received $25.3 million in excess payments for medically assisted treatments covered through Medicaid over several years.” At the hearing, Committee Chair Michelle Benson said “The taxpayers didn’t make this mistake. They’re not the ones who used the judgment to cause the overpayments, why should they be held responsible?” She also said that “lawmakers shouldn’t have to allocate $25 million in additional funds to cover overpayments to two tribes.”

HHS needs a serious culture change. It’s questionable that Ms. Harpstead will provide that type of leadership. The organization she’s currently running specializes in secrecy and stiff-arming local politicians. That isn’t the reputation of a reformer. Make no mistake, either. HHS needs a reformation:

Other DHS employees or former employees shared with the committee their concerns about what they’d faced at the department. The former Medicaid program director told the panel bureaucrats in the department rejected advice from medical professionals and abruptly dismissed him in July.

And Faye Bernstein, a DHS compliance officer, said she was put on temporary leave when she raised concerns about compliance in state contracts. She was later allowed to return to her post and appeared Tuesday on a vacation day. She said she’d received notice ahead of the hearing that she could be terminated for her comments to lawmakers.

Think about that a minute. Bernstein was “put on temporary leave” because “she raised concerns about compliance” issues. If that isn’t proof that HHS needs a total reformation, then it’s hopeless.

The Senate has the constitutional responsibility of confirming commissioners. Unless Sen. Benson’s committee gets proof that Harpstead is serious about changing the culture at HHS, the Senate should reject her, then tell Gov. Walz that he needs to appoint someone who is committed to transparency and reformation.

Gov. Walz took time to visit the Vikings’ training facility. Apparently, he thinks that being the CEO of the state is a part-time responsibility. Thus far, he’s been a huge disappointment.

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