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Senators press DHS with tough questions

Many of the questions can't be answered yet, but Senate Republicans vow to keep up the pressure on the Minnesota's largest state largest agency.

ST PAUL, Minn. — State senators spent three and a half hours Tuesday, looking to air out a wide variety of trouble spots at the Department of Human Services.

The hearing was billed ahead of time in public notices as "What went wrong at DHS?" and the witnesses included employees, former employees, Native American tribal leaders, the legislative auditor and the acting head of the agency.

"The problem at DHS it that it's insular and isolated, and the think there has been a culture of 'We know what we're doing, don't question us'," Sen. Michele Benson, the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, told reporters.

RELATED: Walz names Lutheran Social Services chief to lead DHS

One of the witnesses she called was Dr. Jeffrey Schiff, who worked as the DHS Medicaid medical director for 13 years until his job was eliminated in June. He told legislators he only had three days' notice the job was going away, and that the agency's idea for replacing his role won't work.

"They have stated the may rotate people through for different expertise. I think that is crazy!" Dr. Schiff said, saying they already rely on medical professionals from different fields for advice.

He called upper management at DHS "unconscionably arrogant" and said "a small faction has an inordinate amount of control." 

The committee also hard from DHS employee Faye Bernstein, who said she rubbed managers the wrong way by raising questions about compliance issues with behavior health contracts she was supposed to review.

"The insinuation was that I was not doing my job right. Comments like, 'You’re too focused on compliance'," Bernstein recalled.

Her growing frustration with management led her to send an email to 130 coworkers pointing out the situation and what she found wrong with it.

"Within an hour I was escorted out of the building, I was banned from DHS owned or leased property."

Bernstein returned to the job Aug. 5 and received a "letter of expectation" that goes in her employee file.  

Overbilling Issue

The latest problem to draw headlines is a report that DHS overpaid some Minnesota tribal communities $25 million from 2014 to 2019 for the addiction treatment drug Suboxone.

Tribal leaders from the Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe Nations both appeared at the hearing to say they're just learning about the problem, and haven't had a chance to investigate it yet.

Federal guidelines called for the tribes to be paid $455 for those who received the medication as part of a clinic visit, and $61 for those who self-administered the drug at home. The question is whether tribes were paid the $455 rate for Suboxone patients took at home. 

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles cautioned legislators for jumping to any conclusions or placing blame in the Suboxone overbilling situation because his investigation is just getting underway.

"I can tell you that no one in this room today has all of the facts," Nobles remarked. 

"This is going to be a long journey of investigating, of interviewing people under oath, reviewing lots of documents.

Embattled agency management

It's the state's largest, and most complex agency with an $18 million budget and 6,700 employees serving more than one million Minnesotans with a wide array of social services, health coverage, nutrition and income supports.

The Senate Republican Majority still is looking for an explanation for the abrupt resignation of Commissioner Tony Lourey last month, even though Gov. Tim Walz has continued to say there's no underlying scandal. They say Lourey simply felt his strengths as a lawmaker didn't match what DHS needs at this time.

RELATED: Wheelock looks to bring calm to DHS

A day earlier,  Gov. Walz named Jodi Harpstead as new DHS Commissioner. She'll start in September, so for the purposes of Tuesday's hearing the arrows were pointed at Pam Wheelock, the acting commissioner.

"This is a complicated place, and these are really difficult jobs, and I respected my predecessor Former Commissioner Lourey’s decision which was deeply personal," Wheelock told lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing.

"I have not found any issue about impropriety, I have not found any issue about criminal activity, there is no scandal, there is no chaos," Wheelock told the panel.

She said DHS career employees continue to do their jobs, and none of the agency's core functions have been disrupted during the management shakeup.

"I think it’s time to move on and let these people have some personal privacy in their lives." 

But Sen. Benson vows to hold more hearings as more information becomes available.

"There is a desperate need for the Department of Human Services to change their culture and say, 'We are willing to learn, we are ready to use best practices, we will look to the private sector, not always internally'," Benson explained.