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Human Services Department looks to slash millions from budget, lawmakers hear

Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead told a House panel Monday that a $27 million shortfall is projected for fiscal year 2021, which ends June 30, 2021, and a $96 million shortfall for the 2022-23 biennium. House Photography file photo

Unfilled positions, operational changes and closures are all on the table as the Department of Human Services looks to remedy short- and long-term budget deficits.

Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said a $27 million shortfall is projected for fiscal year 2021, which ends June 30, 2021, and a $96 million shortfall for the 2022-23 biennium.

“We’re very concerned now about still looking at possible solutions during fiscal 21 so that we are better able to even begin to achieve our budget for the biennium 22 and 23,” Harpstead told the House Health and Human Services Finance Division during a remote informational meeting Monday.

No action was taken, but Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester), the division chair, said there are “some very difficult choices ahead.”

“The sooner we take action, the less pain we’ll have down the road,” said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe). Each month of delay reduces potential savings by $2 million.

The future challenge is more daunting because the state faces an estimated $4.7 billion shortfall for the 2022-23 biennium. Liebling said she expects cuts “all over” the state budget.

The plan for fiscal year 2021 is to save:

  • $7.5 million through one-time reductions in human services administration and central office costs;
  • $7 million in one-time Direct Care and Treatment reductions;
  • $2.9 million by not filling 44 authorized forensic services positions;
  • $1.7 million by accelerating transition of group homes to community providers; and
  • $800,000 by discontinuing sex offender programming inside the Moose Lake correctional facility.

In total, 15 current positions will be eliminated.

However, the proposed changes would not be enough. Current budget alterations still leave a current $7.1 million gap and $70.7 million shortfall in the next biennium.

A supplemental spending package approved by the House Ways and Means Committee during the July special session called for a $25.3 million General Fund operating adjustment for Direct Care and Treatment services to get through fiscal year 2021, but the bill went no further.

Direct Care and Treatment programs make up 6 percent of the department’s General Fund budget and serve about 12,000 people annually in areas that include adult and child mental health, chemical dependency, residential and vocational support services for people with disabilities and/or mental illness, special-needs dental clinics and forensic services (part of which was formerly known as the state security hospital).

House Health and Human Services Finance Division (Remote Hearing) 8/31/20

According to the presentation slides, “The majority of clients receiving mental health and chemical dependency treatment have been civilly committed by the courts. All sex offenders have been civilly committed. Because their conditions are so complex and their behaviors can be volatile, other providers often cannot — or will not — serve them. Some providers do not have the capacity; others do not have the expertise.”

Harpstead said changes were discussed with management teams and representatives of employee bargaining units, but not families.

Eric Hesse, a lead security counselor at the state sex offender program and vice president of AFSCME Local 404, is concerned the “irresponsible” and “dangerous” changes will further reduce employee safety.

He spoke of greater use of overtime to meet staffing needs which leads to staff burnout, decreased staff morale and more injuries because staff are not as alert as they could be. 

“If we go ahead with this, I don’t see how it doesn’t naturally compromise the safety of the clients, staff, and quite possibly the communities,” he said. “It is irresponsible on the part of the Legislature to not fund safe staffing and is irresponsible to propose fixing a budget deficit by cuts focused on front-line staff.”

Harpstead said reducing administrative and support budgets would not be enough to cover the funding gap and across-the-board budget slicing would “ultimately undermine the integrity, therapeutic effectiveness and safety of the entire system.

“Strategic reductions focus on closures or transitioning patients and clients that can be served by private providers — and allows DCT to focus on high-need individuals for which no other services are available.”

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