Regional News in Review - February 2019

Returning, new leaders named

A familiar name and two newcomers are leading state departments that extensively deal with people with disabilities. Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan named state department commissioners in January including Tony Lourey at the Department of Human Services, Jan Malcolm at Department of Health and Rebecca Lucero at Department of Human Rights.

Malcolm, 63, has served as commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health in now three administrations, including Gov. Jesse Ventura (1999-2003) and Gov. Mark Dayton (2018). A nationally recognized expert in public health, she previously worked at a variety of health care organizations and nonprofit organizations and served as adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota.

Walz praised Malcolm for her “proven track record at taking on management challenges and making meaningful changes.” He added, “She mirrors our vision for health equity across the state, and we are glad to have her experience and expertise in our administration.”

“The health of Minnesotans is one of our government’s primary concerns. Thanks to our state’s strong public health and health care systems, we have a good foundation on which to build, but we can do better,” said Malcolm. “The Walz-Flanagan administration’s vision for One Minnesota means making the system more affordable and closing the gaps in health outcomes that exist today, based on many factors, including race and geography.”

Lourey was named to his post after engagement with hundreds of stakeholders and partners. Walz praised Lourey for his unparalleled expertise on the health department budget and his collaborative leadership.

“It is a tremendous honor and privilege to join the incoming Walz-Flanagan Administration as Commissioner of the Department of Human Services,” said Lourey. “I look forward to building on the Walz- Flanagan vision for One Minnesota, partnering with counties, tribes, and providers to improve the health of the people, families, and communities across Minnesota.”

Lourey, 51, was raised in the small town of Kerrick. He worked as a public policy consultant for 20 years, assisting county and state governments nationwide. He served as a Kerrick Township Supervisor for nine years. Lourey was elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2006 and quickly became a leading voice in health and human services as the chair of the Health and Human Finance Committee from 2013 to 2016. He played a central role in Minnesota’s efforts to expand health care coverage, compliance with the Affordable Care Act, and improvements upon the bipartisan success of MinnesotaCare.

Lucero was praised by Walz for her background in policy across sectors, as well as a flexible, creative, and persistent approach to the human rights department.

“With Minnesota facing some of the worst racial disparities in the country and as reports of hate crimes and discrimination continue to rise, the Department of Human Rights must be a catalyst for transformational change,” said Lucero. “I am proud and honored to join the Walz-Flanagan Administration because we can – and we must – do better. Everyone deserves to be healthy and safe, valued and nurtured, and I look forward to getting to work.”

Lucero, 37, was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but made Minnesota her home for more than a decade. She has extensive policy, legal, and nonprofit leadership experience, building coalitions and fostering meaningful, change-oriented relationships. Lucero was the public policy director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. Her previous experience includes Habitat for Humanity and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. (Source: Minnesota governor’s office)

 

Changes seen in abuse cases

A northern Minnesota care facility where a vulnerable adult is believed to have been subjected to a fatal beating faced a swift and severe penalty, part of the Minnesota Department of Health’s effort to clamp down on the senior care industry.

In early November, state healt investigators arrived at Chappy’s Golden Shores, a small assisted-living facility south of Grand Rapids. Complaints of maltreatment revealed levels of violence against residents, as well as repeated cover-ups by administrators. The facility license was quickly suspended, and the remaking 38 residents relocated.

The response reflects change at the state health department, which has been working to improve efforts to protect vulnerable Minnesotans in care facilities. The effort was spurred in part by an investigate series by the Star Tribune and a scathing report by the legislative auditor.

“I’ve never seen the [Health Department] come down this quickly and this forcefully on the side of protecting our vulnerable adults and the elderly,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Human Services Reform Committee. “There was an urgency here that we haven’t seen in the past.”

After taking over, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm overhauled the agency’s system for responding to and investigating allegations, eliminating a vast backlog of never investigated cases while speeding up the pace of new investigations. That has produced positive results, more than doubling the number of maltreatment investigations it completes annually, and is conducting them at a much faster pace. Each allegation of maltreatment is examined within two days, and the average time to complete investigations has dropped by nearly half, from 187 days in 2017 to 110 days last year, state data show.

“The progress is very real,” Malcolm said in an interview. “We feel much more confident today that when serious issues are brought to our attention, that we spot them and are able to get to them more quickly.”

Although advocates are pushing for more progress, the thorough nature of recent investigations has drawn praise. That includes the scrutiny of Chappy’s. The facility owner has appealed the state decision.

State lawmakers are seeking more tools to deal with miscreants, with one proposal to require all assisted living facilities to be licensed by the state. It also would clarify state law to give people the right to place cameras in senior homes to monitor care of their loved ones. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

Teacher suspended for behavior

A St. Paul special education teacher was suspended for seven days for shoddy record-keeping and demeaning her students on Instagram. Kjerstin Hagen was hired in 2012 and teaches students with disabilities at the preK-8 American Indian Magnet School.

For each child on her caseload, Hagen was out of compliance with state rules requiring review and revision of students’ individualized education plans, according to an October 2018 discipline letter. The Pioneer Press newspaper sought release of her teaching records.

The noncompliance included “inaccurate information, substandard documentation, programming errors (and) out of date IEPs,” said the letter signed by Theresa Battle, interim special education director. Hagen also published Instagram posts that referred to her students “in a demeaning manner” and posted “student assignments which contain inappropriate content,” the letter stated.

Instagram is a free photo and video sharing app available on Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone. People can upload photos or videos to the service and share them with their followers or with a select group of friends.

Hagen was previously warned about special education compliance problems in April 2017. (Source: Pioneer Press)

 

Vaccines part of debate

Autism activists are concerned that the appointment of vaccine skeptics to a newly formed state council gives credibility to views the state has struggled
to dispel. The Minnesota Council was formed last fall as an advisory group for state lawmakers.

Doctors have widely concluded that vaccines, like the one for measles, mumps, and rubella, are not linked to autism. The World Health Organization list published includes vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 threats to global health in 2019, and notes measles cases have increased 30 percent worldwide.

Two of the more than 30 members on the council are known vaccine skeptics. Anti-vaccination groups have focused on Minnesota’s Somali-American community in the past as they tried to perpetuate the hoax that vaccines cause autism, contributing to a drop in vaccinations and the largest measles outbreak in the state’s recent history in 2017.

“Even if it’s not something that’s discussed or that a policy is going to come out of, giving them this large contingency on this council is dangerous. It’s giving credence to a theory that’s false,” said council member Noah McCourt, an autism self-advocate who also serves on the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.

But autism council members who are also members of a “vaccine safety council” have said they want to defend parents’ choice to not vaccinate their children. But they have also said that discussion won’t take place at the autism council.

The council has started meeting, with reminders from leadership and state legislators that the council isn’t pro or anti-vaccine, and that it has other topics to deal with. The group is building on the work of a state autism task force that disbanded in 2014. The previous council disbanded after chairs resigned and there were personality conflicts among council members.

One in 59 children were identified with an autism spectrum disorder nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in Minnesota, it’s one in 42 children. (Source: Star Tribune)