ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, Aug. 12, announced his pick to lead the Department of Human Services following top-level turnover there in recent weeks.
Walz at a news conference said Jodi Harpstead would take over as DHS commissioner beginning Sept. 3. Harpstead serves as president and CEO of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and has a background working in senior leadership ranks at Medtronic.
The announcement comes just under a month after former Commissioner Tony Lourey abruptly resigned the post and his chief of staff departed a day later. Two top deputy commissioners with decades of experience between them had said they'd resign but agreed to stay on with the department after Lourey and his chief of staff stepped down.
In the interim, Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock has overseen the department and responded to reports of overpayments of Medicaid dollars to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation. Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Systems have said the state will have to repay the more than $25 million.
Republican state lawmakers have raised questions about turmoil at the department and scheduled a hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 13, to dig into reported concerns. On Monday, they said they were glad to see a new leader who could guide changes in the culture at the department.
In selecting the next DHS commissioner, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said they went back to the work of their administration's transition team to draw potential candidates for the top post at DHS. And they said they picked Harpstead as her experience was a strong fit to lead at this time.
“Jodi is currently the chief executive officer of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. She’s got 2,300 employees, LSS offers a broad array of community services for people of all ages: housing, crisis shelters, mental health counseling, adoption, financial counseling, senior nutrition, foster care and services for persons with disabilities,” Walz said. “That is about the exact job description of the commissioner of the Department of Human Services in many cases.”
Walz said Harpstead was in the running for the position in December, but at that time the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor wanted to prioritize a person who could help write and pass a two-year budget and keep in place a tax on medical providers that would've expired without action. That's why he selected former Commissioner Lourey, he said.
With the budget complete and the provider tax extended, Walz said he sought out someone with a background in leading a company with many similar responsibilities to the DHS position and a background in bringing people together.
Harpstead also touted her background in business as she accepted her appointment on Monday.
She will be the first DHS commissioner with a master's degree in business administration to run the department since 1984, when the department restructured from the Department of Public Welfare.
"I know the people of the DHS to be the same dedicated, caring, and competent people I have worked with at LSS,” Harpstead said. “I look forward to asking the leaders at the Department of Human Services to imagine their biggest possibilities and then supporting them to achieve them."
Colleagues and peers said Harpstead would be a strong proponent of racial equity and a community builder. And Wheelock, the department's acting commissioner, said she would work with Harpstead to get started at DHS. Wheelock also said she will testify at a special hearing on Tuesday of joint Senate committee on health and human services while Harpstead would wait to get to know the agency before commenting.
Wheelock said she didn't have much new information for lawmakers and she aimed to highlight the work going on at the department in the midst of the less-than-positive headlines.
“I think the use of the terminology of the chaos and turmoil is misplaced," Wheelock said, "and it’s time for all of us to move on."
State Sen. Michelle Benson chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, one of the panels set to convene the joint hearing on Tuesday, and she said she wanted to see a change in the department.
“I don’t know Ms. Harpstead but I’m sure we will connect soon," Benson, a Ham Lake Republican, said in a news release. "The department is facing significant challenges and I can only hope that she will not accept the status quo."