Lawmaker ponders breaking down HHS into multiple agencies

2014-02-10T19:25:00Z 2014-02-12T16:46:03Z Lawmaker ponders breaking down HHS into multiple agenciesBy JoANNE YOUNG / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The CEO of the state Department of Health and Human Services -- with its six divisions, 205 programs and more than 5,600 workers -- handled a question from the bill payers Monday on whether HHS should be broken into several agencies.

During the department's budget hearing, senators on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee quizzed Kerry Winterer for an hour on various issues.

In the past couple of years, programs in the department have been the subject of a number of audits by state Auditor Mike Foley's office and the Performance Audit Committee that identified deficiencies, said Appropriations Committee Chairman Heath Mello.

With the change in administration that will come with a new governor next year, Mello wondered if it is time for the Legislature to work with the department and others to make wholesale changes and break HHS up into multiple agencies.

Next to the Department of Education, more money is appropriated to HHS than any department in state government, he said.

Smaller agencies could possibly provide more transparency on how dollars are being spent and programs used, Mello said.

But Winterer said that doing that would not necessarily fix whatever perceived problems the department has.

In theory, he said, having all the safety net programs and benefits offered by HHS consolidated into a single department is good.

"We can share finance operations. We can share (human resources) operations and all of that, then find ways to work together, as directors do, on much more of an informal basis than a formal basis," Winterer said.

It's tempting to say HHS should be multiple agencies, he said, but at what cost?

Mello countered that there are well-documented problems in the department.

"I believe that they're management-driven, which is what most audits and performance audits have shown us," Mello said.

Maybe, he said, the Legislature's role could be to create inspector general positions, such as one established several years ago for child welfare to provide direct legislative oversight over programming and financial matters.

Winterer said he would be concerned about having more bureaucracy to which the department had to be accountable.

"We have a lot of people we're accountable to now," he said. "We spend a lot of time and effort just doing what we need to do to report and to be accountable. ... It dilutes what we're trying to do and where we're trying to go."

Mello said he'd like to see the discussion continue later in the session.

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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