Minnesota House Minority Leader Paul Thissen wants to break up the state’s massive human services department into five separate agencies, each with its own leader.
The effort would be the most significant overhaul of the agency in recent history, designed to streamline delivery of services and increase accountability. Thissen’s announcement comes the day after Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration selected a new commissioner to oversee the embattled agency.
“It’s really too big to manage and have one person be responsible and accountable for everything,” said Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
While welcoming Emily Johnson Piper as the new commissioner, Thissen said the transition is a good time to consider changing an agency that serves more than 1 million Minnesotans.
“The solution is probably not found in a new organizational chart,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who is chairman of the powerful House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. “It’s probably found in new leadership and a change in culture.”
The proposal’s fate in the upcoming legislative session is uncertain, but it could emerge as the foundation of a major rethinking of the agency if DFLers win control of the Legislature in the next election.
The Department of Human Services has a two-year budget of $33.8 billion and more than 6,000 workers whose duties range from overseeing child protection to managing the Minnesota Sex Offender Program to providing health care for the needy. It oversees different populations, requiring vastly different skills.
“The Minnesota Sex Offender Program and delivering health care to poor people have nothing in common,” Thissen said.
Thissen says the reorganization would require no new employees or added cost.
DHS would be divided into as many as five separate operational agencies.
Health care services would run insurance and medical programs for the needy, drug treatment and mental health services; aging and disability services would administer programs for those populations; human services would manage operations related to child welfare and child care assistance programs, income assistance and social services grants; forensic services would run St. Peter State Hospital, the Forensic Nursing Home and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program; and direct care services would have jurisdiction over the Anoka Treatment Facility and State Operated Services, residential and treatment programs serving people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chemical dependency and traumatic brain injury, and people who pose a risk to society.
Most of the resulting new agencies, Thissen says, will still be among the largest in state government.
Roberta Opheim, the state’s ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities, sees merit in the idea. DHS, she said, “is too big, and it’s too complex.”
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, called it a “good conversation, and I welcome it.” He said it raises lots of questions, like the role of county service providers and whether the federal government’s Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services would go along.
Forming separate agencies would itself be a hugely complex undertaking for Piper, the new commissioner.
Thissen said he began mulling these ideas years ago, when he was chairman of the House committee with oversight over DHS-related issues. He shared the idea with aides to Dayton this week, just as Piper was announced.
Her immediate reaction was muted. “I look forward to reviewing Rep. Thissen’s proposal,” she said in a statement. “I will be meeting with staff, stakeholders and state lawmakers to explore all ideas for ways to further improve the human services we provide to the people of Minnesota.”