DHS turmoil scrutinized by lawmakers

July was a turbulent month at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). As interim Commissioner Pamela Wheelock works to right the ship, many in Minnesota’s disability community are wondering what’s going on.

Little is being said about why DHS has dealt with a flurry of resignations, two rescinded resignations and allegations on various fronts. Disability community leaders have said they don’t wish to speculate on what’s happening and are waiting for more information.

DHS has a budget of about $18 million. Its many programs include programs for people with disabilities. The first salvo came with the July 11 resignations of deputy commissioners Claire Wilson and Chuck Johnson. Wilson’s responsibilities include programs for Minnesotans with disabilities.

DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey then resigned July 15, after six months on the job. Chief of staff Stacie Week resigned a day later. Wilson and Johnson rescinded their resignations July 17, after Wheelock took over. Wheelock is a veteran public official, serving in administration in the City of St. Paul and as Gov. Jesse Ventura’s budget director.

Gov. Tim Walz told reporters that the deputy commissioners resigned over the direction DHS was taking. No one is talking about why there was rift between DHS leadership or what it centered on, especially since Lourey had worked with department leadership during his years as a state senator. Lourey had a long history of championing human services legislation especially bills that focused on behavioral health.

The shakeup has drawn the attention of legislators and Jim Nobles, the legislative auditor. Nobles told the Pioneer Press that the shakeup has lacked an explanation that makes sense.

Senators Michelle Benson (R-Ham, Lake) and Julie Rosen (R-Truman) have acted, making records requests to DHS and to Minnesota Management and Budget Commission Myron Franz. The senators wish to see correspondence between top DHS officials. Benson and Rosen also want to see correspondence related to a 2016 outside study of DHS work culture issues.

“The flurry of resignations, appointments, and rescinded resignations has raised significant concerns from my office, from the press, and from the one million people served by DHS,” Benson, R-Ham Lake, said in a statement. Legislators are also questioning high-profile issues raised by current and former DHS staff. Dr. Jeff Schiff, the longtime director of Minnesota’s Medicaid program, was ousted earlier this summer when his position was eliminated.

Schiff sent an open letter to Walz and state lawmakers, in which he described DHS health care leadership as “hostile and dismissive.” He is urging state leaders to set up a means of ongoing oversight for DHS.

Schiff had worked for DHS for 13 years before his post was eliminated. He contends that agency health care leadership ignored advice from physicians in key areas including prior authorizations of drugs for Medicaid recipients. He also expressed concerns about the services people on Medicaid receive.

“Dedicated physicians and other clinical providers from the community are persistently stymied in their ability to meaningfully give input into policy decisions,” Schiff said. But Wheelock responded that DHS already has several independent boards advising the state’s Medicaid program.

Another person raising red flags about DHS is Faye K. Bernstein, a DHS compliance officer. Bernstein has alleged retaliation after she reported serious non-compliance issues with state contracts.

“I am aware of substandard and non-compliant contracts approved by management to go out the door, putting DHS funds at risk,” she wrote in a July email to colleagues in the DHS division that oversees behavioral health. “On a good day I am met with dismissiveness, on a bad day it feels to me to be intentionally punitive.”

The email went on to say that the atmosphere in the division had changed “dramatically and negatively” over the past six months.

In response, Walz said that he wants state employees to speak out, especially if they see problems. Wilson issued a statement saying that DHS is looking into the issues Bernstein has raised.