One of the largest and most complex agencies in state government, the Department of Human Services, will be led by Hamline University Prof. Lucinda Jesson, a former prosecutor and deputy attorney general, the governor's office announced Tuesday.

As a private practice attorney, Jesson specialized in health care law, representing hospitals, clinics and managed care organizations and has written scholarly works on health reform and regulation. "I'm delighted to have the opportunity and am feeling a little overwhelmed at first," said Jesson, on the eve of the official announcement.

Jesson, 52, worked briefly on Gov. Mark Dayton's transition team. As a Minnesota deputy attorney general, she was responsible for health care and licensing from 1993 to 1998. Jesson will take on a massive job as head of Human Services.

The department handles health care programs for more than 700,000 Minnesotans monthly, food support for 315,000 and child support for nearly 400,000 parents. It administers nearly $9 billion in state funds -- about 30 percent of all state spending -- and another $15 billion in federal and other fee-based funds, making it the largest department by spending in the state.

"It's an agency that has such important work," Jesson said. "It really preserves the safety net for the most vulnerable people, the ill, the poor, the disadvantaged. ... To do it well, to do it efficiently, to do it in a cost-effective manner, to do it in a way that focuses on the people DHS serves? That's just too great an opportunity to walk away from."

Human Services, more than any other department, will be in the focus of budget-cutters, as state officials work to fill in a projected $6.2 billion deficit. Republican legislative leaders say that health care has become too costly and are resisting some federal health reforms that broaden the government's mandate.

Jesson acknowledged that "very hard, difficult" decisions lie ahead, but said she would make those with the agency's clients in mind.

At the end of four years, Jesson said, she wants the agency to be known nationwide as a place for creative, innovative and cost-efficient delivery of vital services.

Medicaid expansion

Jesson, who has made a series of small financial contributions to Minnesota DFL candidates over the years, has her first task already set out.

Dayton said last week that the new commissioner's immediate mandate will be "to do everything humanly possible" to speed the expansion of Medicaid in the state. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Human Services commissioner, Cal Ludemann, had said it would take until October to put the new program in place.

"I think we can do it much quicker than their original projections," Jesson said.

Dayton has appointed 11 commissioners so far, including heads of the departments of education, health, transportation and human services.

Jesson, who hadn't known Dayton well before she worked on his transition, knows at least one of his previous appointments well. She coauthored a 2008 paper on the definition of public charities with Myron Frans, then an attorney at Faegre & Benson.

Last week, Dayton appointed Frans to be his revenue commissioner.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164