Yet another scandal at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) has put to rest any lingering doubts about which division within the agency is at the heart of its dysfunction. It's the part of the agency called the Behavioral Health Division, which funds mental health and substance abuse, and yet again its shoddy performance is generating headlines.
Last week, a disturbing Star Tribune story detailed more dismal findings about the agency's handling of public dollars. DHS "violated state law more than 200 times over the past year" when it failed to properly document $52 million in contracts and grant commitments. DHS officials told the newspaper they had "backstops that prevent money from actually going out the door in these situations,'' but this fails to reassure after two accounting scandals earlier this year at the agency.
In late August, DHS revealed that it owes the federal government $48 million after improperly reimbursing substance treatment providers with Medicaid dollars. Minnesotans also learned this year that the agency made $29 million in overpayments for opioid addiction treatment to two tribal nations, an error detailed at length in a report released last week by the legislative auditor.
While the buck ultimately stops with agency leaders, the origins of these high-profile accounting errors appear to be in the agency's Behavioral Health Division. So it was troubling to see that division's mistakes a focus again in last week's Star Tribune story.
"The largest number of violations were reported by the agency's troubled Behavioral Health Division," the story reported. "Altogether, the Behavioral Health Division reported 30% of all violations disclosed to top DHS administrators this year. Its 63 violations involved grants and contracts totaling $16 million, including 27 separate grants for Indian bands."
While the Star Tribune story illustrates the role that the news media plays in government accountability, it's troubling that DHS staff apparently did not report these violations to the legislative auditor earlier this year. DHS has a strong new commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, and the Legislature has trained a powerful spotlight on the agency's operations. Errors are no longer going to stay under wraps.
To be fair, the problems within DHS aren't limited to Behavioral Health. But it's the source of the most obvious, pointed and blatant examples of the mismanagement that has gone on for years. Harpstead is launching new accounting and accountability measures agencywide. In an interview Friday, the new commissioner said she is well aware of concerns specific to Behavioral Health. It's also a priority to hire a new assistant commissioner, one with strong management experience, to oversee the division.
Gov. Tim Walz needs to stay focused on agency operations and ensure that improvements are strong enough to remedy the structural and management flaws that allowed problems to fester. Lawmakers also have an important role to play.
Oversight hearings have explored the problems. Now it's time to figure out fixes. A sensible step is commissioning a study of how the sprawling agency could be reorganized. Both time and expertise is critical to ensure this is done right. The Star Tribune story underscored the need to get this process going.