Minnesota’s new Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead has been at the helm of the state’s largest and most troubled agency for just over a week. And she is already charting a path for her first 90 days and beyond.
Her top priority: Restoring trust in the sprawling Department of Human Services, which has come under fire in recent months for unexplained turnover in its leadership ranks, allegations of whistleblower retaliation and its mishandling of more than $70 million in federal Medicaid funds. A panel of state senators met twice in the past month to take a deeper look at problems within the agency.
Harpstead is the state’s third Human Services commissioner in as many months. Former Commissioner Tony Lourey, who Gov. Tim Walz first appointed to the post, resigned abruptly and without explanation in July, just six months into his tenure. Walz tapped state government veteran Pam Wheelock as interim commissioner until he named Harpstead in August.
During this same stretch, several key members of the agency’s executive team resigned, un-resigned, and in one case, re-resigned, with no clear public explanation for the unusual exodus.
The new DHS commissioner knows she needs to win back trust for the agency. She has a lengthy to-do list — from making amends with skeptical Republican lawmakers to repairing relationships with tribal governments.
With decades of management experience from her stints at Lutheran Social Service and Medtronic, Harpstead will have plenty to draw on as she manages more than 7,000 DHS employees, a nearly $18 billion budget and a range of programs for the state’s most vulnerable residents.
On Friday, the Pioneer Press interviewed Harpstead for roughly 15 minutes and asked nearly as many questions. Here’s how she answered them:
In the past few months, there have been resignations, un-resignations and even re-resignations by top officials. There have been allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers. And of course it also came to light that DHS overpaid two tribes $25 million, and improperly paid some drug treatment providers $48 million, putting our money owed to the feds at $73 million. How do you plan to right the ship at DHS?
First, we have some open positions as you know, and we’re working to fill those with some really competent and talented people who are also great managers. Taking a look, of course, right now across the whole department, meeting with staff, understanding where we’re at on things. As you know, I have a 90-day plan which starts with getting on top of the issues that we’ve all read about in the paper and working to bring those to resolution, to develop preventative measures and see if there are any systemic issues that need to be dealt with. My other very top priority is rebuilding the team by filling positions and rebuilding teamwork inside of the department.
The two tribes that DHS overpaid, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the White Earth Nation, have said your agency did not meaningfully communicate with them about the payment mistakes. What is your plan to repair that line of communication?
I reached out to those two tribes the day I started here. I’m going up to see them next week at the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council meeting. And we intend to stay in constant communication.
It has been DHS’s position to seek repayment from the tribes but not the drug treatment providers that were improperly paid. Why seek payback from them and not the others?
You know, I really can’t talk about the details of that whole deal. We’re still under review, and as we finish that whole review and come up with a resolution, we’ll be able to talk about it then.
What type of safeguards are you putting in place, or have in mind, to make sure no more federal money is mishandled?
I’m looking to see what sort of overall controls we have in the finance area and in compliance to see if there are things that we need to do to really do a stronger job in those areas.
Should we expect any more resignations from the agency’s executive leadership?
Not that I’m aware of.
When do you expect to appoint a new deputy commissioner and state Medicaid director? (Both resigned a couple of weeks ago.)
Obviously, we’ll have to get those positions posted as soon as possible, and then we’re going to cast a wide net for potential candidates. We want to make sure that’s a good process, so it will take as long as it takes to make sure it’s a high-quality process. But we hope to complete it in a timely fashion and hopefully within that 90 days we talked about.
Splitting up the agency — you have said you are open to it. Can you talk more about which parts you could see breaking off?
Well, the one that’s been mentioned the most by different people is the possibility of splitting off direct care and treatment. So I’m considering that, taking a look at it, asking questions about it. It’s the one that would be sort of the cleanest break from the rest of the department. But we aren’t working on splitting it, we’re just having the conversation.
How many agencies do you think could come out of a potential split?
Don’t know. Don’t even know if we’re going to split. One of the things that I’m learning as I maneuver through the department and get to know people is the lots of functions that are cross-departmental. And I’m looking at what we would lose if we split them off as well, and I’m also concerned about the cost of having separate departments.
What is the status of the investigation into Inspector General Carolyn Ham? (Ham was put on paid leave March 18 while the agency investigated a complaint against her. In July — after she had already been paid more than $42,000 to sit at home — Ham said the investigation had yet to start. She has since been temporarily reassigned and put back to work while the investigation continues.)
Ongoing, and we’ll let you know when it’s complete. I’m also hoping that that will be complete in that 90 days we’ve been talking about.
What is your plan to restore trust with the Legislature?
I’m meeting with legislators. We have quite a few meetings in the next several weeks. And (I’m) eager to talk with them individually after the hearing and see what’s on people’s minds and how we can do a better job of communicating and being transparent with them. It’s an ongoing relationship-building process.
There have been concerns of retaliation against whistleblowers within DHS in the past. What type of workplace environment do you want to create at DHS?
Of course, we’re looking for an atmosphere of trust and … one where people are kind to each other and looking for the best in each other and continuing to stay committed to why they came to work at the department. I’ve been asking a lot of people since I came, ‘Why did you come to work at the Department of Human Services?’ And let’s keep that in front of us every day and see what we can do to work together to keep that top of mind.
The department has been under a lot of pressure between changes in the top leadership and some of the issues that have arisen, but also from the constant press coverage. And so, (I’m) hoping that we can reduce that pressure so people can get back to their great work together.
What has surprised you the most about this job so far?
The same thing that surprised me when I left Medtronic to go to LSS. It’s surprising how different it isn’t. People are people. Organizations are organizations, and some of the concerns that come up are similar across different kinds of organizations. Obviously, we’re in a different context here with a very public constituency, but in a lot of ways the organizational dynamics are not that different.