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DHS commissioner maintains department could not help disability service providers financially

Kirsten Swanson
Updated: July 15, 2020 02:35 PM
Created: July 14, 2020 04:30 PM

The head of Minnesota's largest state agency maintains she did not have the authority to request federal assistance for disability service providers that were financially devastated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead also acknowledged that her staff never asked whether they could request such assistance without legislative authority even though 35 other states had already obtained the waiver, according to a 5 INVESTIGATES review of federal data from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid.

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"We didn't believe that our executive order in Minnesota allowed us to go and ask for that," Harpstead said during an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES. "We think the legislature needs to act for us to go seek that waiver."

In June, lawmakers demanded DHS provide proof of that belief.

"I would like to ask you for the statute or rule, whatever it is, that you are claiming," said Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, who sits on the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee during a recent hearing. "It's got to be founded on something. Because no other states have made that claim."

Sen Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) tells 5 INVESTIGATES that DHS didn't provide a clear answer. 

Last in line: Minnesota disability services on life support with no safety net from the state

Republican and DFL Senators have voiced criticism over the department's stance in the last month, as dozens of providers reported that they could be forced to close before the end of the year permanently.

Since the end of March, DHS used the special waiver six times, according to a review of Medicaid data. The department asked for special permissions, such as allowing providers to connect with clients remotely. But DHS never included the request for financial relief in those six waivers.

Harpstead, who was tapped to run the state's largest agency in August 2019, has said that it's up to the legislature to give DHS the authority to seek those relief payments. 

When asked if she would retroactively request the federal waiver, Harpstead confirmed they would.

Gov. Walz responds to disability service provider requests for emergency funding

"We've also been looking at opening up services in addition to looking at those payments."

On Sunday, DHS released new guidelines that allow people with disabilities who live in group home or other congregate care settings to return to in-person programming for the first time since March.

"We've turned the dial to open services back up just as quickly as we did given the data that we've been looking at," Harpstead said.


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