State Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson has been recommended for a prestigious judgeship after five tumultuous years leading an agency that oversees some of Minnesota’s most intractable issues, including treatment of sex offenders and care at state mental hospitals.
Jesson, 57, is one of four candidates for two openings on the Minnesota Court of Appeals. She is widely considered a strong contender because of her long track record handling complex assignments for top officials such as Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The other candidates recommended by the Commission on Judicial Selection are Judge Diane Bratvold of the Fourth Judicial District; Judge Jeffrey Bryan of the Second Judicial District; and Tracy Smith, deputy general counsel at the University of Minnesota.
Dayton plans to interview the candidates in coming weeks before making the appointments.
Jesson, a former prosecutor and deputy Hennepin County attorney, brought swift changes to the Department of Human Services (DHS), a mammoth agency that had a reputation for bureaucratic inertia. At the same time, her tenure was marked by the rocky debut of MNsure, the state’s health-insurance exchange, rising levels of violence at state-operated mental hospitals and a long and still-unresolved legal battle over confinement of sex offenders.
Before Jesson took the helm in early 2011, the agency had come under fire from critics who complained that it appeared to limp from one crisis to the next, often reacting to problems rather than taking the lead on solutions. There were reports of abuse at state-operated facilities for the disabled, and the state’s largest psychiatric hospital in St. Peter had been placed on a conditional license because of the overuse of restraint and seclusion. Early in her tenure, her agency was sued by a class of sex offenders who alleged that Minnesota was violating their Constitutional rights by detaining them indefinitely without regular reviews.
Though some of these problems persist, Jesson proved adept at persuading lawmakers and entrenched industry groups to accept incremental reforms designed to improve the lives of the vulnerable citizens served by her agency.
“When it’s really tough stuff, Lucinda has been there,” said Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, head of the legislative committee that oversees Human Services. “She picked away at problems she inherited, and drove hard to get real results.”
Jesson also oversaw a dramatic shift in the way Minnesota contracts with health insurers, forcing them to bid competitively for hundreds of millions of dollars in state Medicaid and MinnesotaCare business. The Dayton administration has estimated that the bidding, though controversial, has saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
In an e-mail Wednesday to agency employees, Jesson wrote, “As a longtime attorney and daughter of a judge, I have always been interested in serving in the judiciary. After five productive, fulfilling and eventful years as DHS commissioner, the time seems right to pursue this opportunity.” Jesson was not available Wednesday for an interview.
Among Jesson’s early achievements was creation of an Office of the Inspector General within DHS to step up scrutiny of the billions of dollars flowing through the agency to licensed medical and care providers. The office cracked down on child care providers that placed infants in unsafe sleeping positions, resulting in a dramatic decline of infant deaths in care. The office also heightened oversight of doctors, pharmacies and home health agencies, collecting millions of dollars in fraudulent overpayments.
“[Jesson] was unwavering in her commitment to building a better mental health system,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “She doesn’t back away from the big problems.”
To accomplish these goals, Jesson was not afraid to shake up her agency by replacing department heads with experienced social service professionals from outside. That includes Jennifer DeCubellis, who earned a national reputation for her efforts to integrate social services and medical care while cutting costs in Hennepin County, and now oversees a broad range of services at DHS.
“Lucinda really wanted to do the right thing, and she had people at DHS moving at a faster pace than they had in years,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308