ST. PAUL — Minnesota Republicans who have called for an explanation about turnover and turmoil within the Department of Human Services may get some answers this week.
The Republican-led Senate health and human services committee will hold a hearing Tuesday, Aug. 13, where members are expected to press DHS leaders about a slew of unexplained resignations and $25 million in overpayments to two Native American tribes, among other issues.
“We have a lot of questions about the $25 million payment issue. We have questions about the (Office of the Inspector General) investigation. We have questions about the departures of commissioners and deputy commissioners. We have questions about the treatment of whistleblowers,” said state Sen. Jim Abeler, a Republican from Anoka who will co-chair the hearing.
The questions Abeler mentioned refer to a chain of events that occurred over the past month. Here’s a refresher:
OVERPAYMENTS: DHS overpaid two tribal governments by $25.3 million over the past five years for substance abuse treatment covered under Medicaid. The agency reimbursed the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation for in-person visits with health care providers when patients were actually taking the medication at home.
RESIGNATIONS: DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey and his chief of staff resigned abruptly last month after his two top deputies said they would leave the agency. Deputy Commissioners Chuck Johnson and Claire Wilson rescinded their resignations after Lourey and his chief of staff quit. Neither DHS nor Gov. Tim Walz have offered specifics on why the resignations occurred; the rift has been described as a power struggle between Lourey and his chief of staff on one side and the two deputies on the other.
INSPECTOR GENERAL: DHS Inspector General Carolyn Ham was put on paid leave March 18 while the agency investigated a complaint against her. On July 12 — after she had already been paid more than $42,000 to sit at home — Ham said the investigation had yet to start. DHS announced a temporary leader for the inspector general’s office on July 29 and said Ham had been put back to work in the Office of General Counsel while the investigation continued.
WHISTLEBLOWERS: A compliance officer at DHS said she was retaliated against after she reported “serious noncompliance issues” with state contracts. Faye K. Bernstein wrote in a July 10 email to her colleagues that she was aware of “substandard and noncompliant contracts approved by management to go out the door, putting DHS funds at risk.” She said her attempts to scrutinize problems were dismissed by her superiors.
The Tuesday Senate hearing has a lengthy guest list, according to a draft agenda. But it is not yet clear who will attend.
Among those invited to speak are acting DHS Commissioner Pam Wheelock, deputy commissioners Johnson and Wilson, former Commissioner Lourey and his chief of staff Stacie Weeks, state Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, the two tribes, Ham, Bernstein and Dr. Jeff Schiff, the longtime medical director of Minnesota’s Medicaid program who was ousted from the agency in June.
In a statement Friday, a DHS spokeswoman would not say which officials will testify.
“The commissioner will respond to the chairs before the hearing about who will testify,” the spokeswoman said.
Wheelock sent an email to members of the Senate health and human services committee late Friday in which she said she will be the only DHS leader to testify. The deputy commissioners, she said, will not be available. Johnson will be on vacation and Wilson will be leading a DHS conference.
Abeler said “it appears the ‘do not talk’ rule is in strong force” at DHS.
“They continue doing business like nothing new has been discovered,” Abeler said. “That’s the problem — nothing changes.”