HHS chief says audit by Legislature would be welcome

2013-12-26T13:15:00Z 2014-01-25T18:33:48Z HHS chief says audit by Legislature would be welcomeBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The leader of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday he would welcome an audit of a low-income energy assistance program by the Legislature's Performance Audit Committee.

At the same time, CEO Kerry Winterer disagreed with a number of observations by state Auditor Mike Foley that resulted from his office's examination of the department's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Last week, Foley sent a letter to the committee's chairman, Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, recommending the performance audit. The letter followed the auditor's discovery that HHS would pass up $5.8 million in federal money that could have been used to benefit low-income Nebraskans in need of assistance to pay utility bills.

The program helps pay the cost of home heating and cooling for those who apply for basic or crisis payments. Foley said he found that HHS did not spend the money within the period allowed, so the money would have to be forfeited.

His auditors also found the department spent $656,000 in excess of the 10 percent allowable to administer the program. That money is being paid back to the federal government.

Foley said Nebraskans send some $20 billion to Washington in federal taxes and should use properly whatever money comes back to the state. If that means amending the state plan for the program so it can spend more of the money for its intended purpose, then that should be considered, he said.

On Thursday, Winterer said he would invite the Performance Audit Committee to examine the program.

“We’ve found that office to be professional, thorough and fair in their reviews and we welcome them to audit the program,” he said in the written response.

He disagrees, he said, with Foley's statement that HHS personnel “have a serious lack of understanding of the federal and state regulations.”

More staff has been dedicated to work with the program grant, Winterer said. Issues mentioned by Foley dealt with establishing better internal communications and controls rather than not understanding regulations. The issue of internal controls has been reviewed and corrected for future years, he said.

There is a philosophical difference between the auditor and HHS about federal money, Winterer said.

“The auditor seems to be saying if we have additional federal dollars, we should spend them now without considering the longer-term consequences,” he said.

Changing the state plan in this situation means HHS would give considerably more money to people already receiving benefits, or more people with higher incomes would be eligible for benefits, he said.

The auditor’s call to change the low-income energy assistance state plan eligibility requirements would be an expansion of the program, Winterer said. If it did that, and the department received a smaller amount the next year, funds might not be available for all recipients.

“The unused $5.8 million in (energy assistance) funds that will be retained by the federal government are taxpayer dollars, and as good stewards of the public’s money, they always should be handled with that in mind,” he said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.

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