Now three divisions: Department of Human Services eyes various plans for reorganization

Emily Johnson PiperThe Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS), which has faced its share of challenges in recent years, will look different in the future. A plan to have agency operations under three broad divisions was announced in December and will take shape in the months ahead.

However, restructuring DHS further could emerge as an issue during the upcoming 2016 legislative session. It could be a focus in the upcoming race for Minnesota governor. It could be debated in 2017 if DFLers regain control of the Minnesota House and hang onto the Senate.

What could the current and proposed changes mean for Minnesotans with disabilities and elders? DHS is the largest state agency and serves more than one million people with a wide array of programs and services. Its biennial budget is about $33.8 billion. It has more than 6,200 employees under its umbrella and it serves very different populations through an array of programs. Minnesotans with disabilities rely on many DHS programs for independence.

Gov. Mark Dayton in December appointed Emily Johnson Piper as DHS commissioner. She succeeds Lucinda Jesson, who was appointed to a Minnesota Court of Appeals judgeship. “Emily Johnson Piper will be an outstanding Human Services Commissioner,” said Dayton. “Emily’s exceptional judgement, her integrity, and her commitment to excellence in all she does, are the foundations for her success. As general counsel, she has been deeply involved in the most significant issues affecting the department. Thus she is well-prepared to provide the same outstanding leadership to that agency, as did her predecessor, Judge Lucinda Jesson.”

Piper moves to DHS from a post as deputy chief of staff and general counsel in the governor’s office. She has worked closely with state administration on high-profile legal issues, including those involving DHS.

Piper has practiced law, in both the private and public sectors, in the areas of insurance, health care, human services, and employment. “I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota as Commissioner of Human Services,” said Piper.

“The services provided by the Department of Human Services empower more than one million of our most vulnerable Minnesotans to lead healthier, fuller, more independent lives. I will do all that I can to honor that important commitment to the people of Minnesota.” Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL – Minneapolis), who is House minority leader, used the occasion of Piper’s appointment to call for DHS to be broken into five separate agencies. Each would have its own leader. “It’s really too big to manage and have one person be responsible and accountable for everything,” said Thissen told the Star Tribune.

Piper responded by announcing that she would reorganize DHS into three larger divisions. Her plan, outlined in an email to DHS staff, is effective immediately. But it will likely take time to put everything in place. Unlike the Thissen proposal, Piper wouldn’t break up the agency. Medicaid, MinnesotaCare, and services for people with disabilities, elders and children will report directly to Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson. Direct care, including the Minnesota Sex Offender Program and state-run mental health and substance abuse clinics, will be overseen by a deputy commissioner yet to be hired.

Thissen’s proposed changes would have been the most sweeping restructures of Minnesota human services in many years. Even dividing DHS into as many five separate agencies would mean that some agencies would still be among the largest in state government. “The Minnesota Sex Offender Program and delivering health care to poor people have nothing in common,” Thissen said.

The reorganization calls for a separate aging and disability services division. However, some specific disability service programs would be under different agencies. Health care services would oversee insurance and medical programs for low-income persons, drug treatment and mental health services.

A direct care services agency would have jurisdiction over the Anoka Regional Treatment Facility and state-operated services, managing residential and treatment programs serving people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chemical dependency and traumatic brain injury, and persons deemed to be a risk to society. A forensic services agency would run programs including the St. Peter State Hospital, some nursing home programs and the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. Human services would manage operations related to child welfare and child care assistance programs, income assistance and social services grants.

Thissen’s proposal met a mixed response. Disability advocates saw merit in the idea of breaking up DHS, saying the agency is too large and too complex. DFLers said they would be interested in discussing reorganization ideas. Republicans said that rather than look at reorganization, new leadership and change in culture would help DHS.

Breaking up DHS it into separate agencies would be complex. Federal agencies that provide funding for state programs, such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, would have to have a say because of how those programs’ funding is handled.

Counties that provide services in partnership with DHS would also want to weigh in, as would nonprofit service providers. Another unknown is how the state’s myriad of human services advocacy groups, including disability community groups, would react to a major reorganization.