Sen. Rarick column: It’s time to break up Department of Human Services

Jason Rarick
Jason Rarick

It’s time to break up the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

This was the recommendation of Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock this past August. It is not a brand-new idea, but it is the only reasonable option. I can no longer see an alternative path that gets the agency turned around and functioning at the level Minnesotans demand.

DHS is the state’s largest agency, responsible for $18 billion and almost 7,000 employees. Along with the Department of Education, DHS also has arguably the state’s most important mission. It runs the programs that support some of our most vulnerable citizens. Programs like Minnesota’s Medicaid and Medicare programs, which cover 1.2 million residents — that’s 22% of Minnesotans!

Other programs under DHS’ umbrella include child care assistance, food stamps, child protection and foster care, housing assistance and support for individuals with alcohol and drug addiction. There are millions of Minnesotans that depend on these services to survive.

In general, that’s fine. Most Minnesotans are happy to provide support for people who truly need help, but we also expect these programs to operate effectively and efficiently.


It’s a perfectly reasonable expectation, but one at which the Department of Human Services is utterly and miserably failing.

In just November, we have learned that the agency has habitually been violating state contract law to award more than 1,800 illegal contracts last year alone. We have learned that DHS illegally instructed counties and Indian tribes to claw back $727,000 in overpayments to poor people, which must now be returned.

We have learned a DHS screw up led to $624,000 in improper county payments to foster homes that didn’t meet federal background check requirements.

And we have learned of an additional $22 million in illegal payments that must be repaid to the federal government, including $13 million that occurred even after the mistake was discovered.

Again, that’s just from November.

The steady stream of scandals this summer and fall barely scratch the surface. Reports of corruption, abuse and waste have been going on for years. In fact, you can see a comprehensive history of the department’s errors by visiting .

The Senate has held several hearings to get answers straight from those in charge. Unfortunately, those answers were mixed at best. For the most part, the officials we asked to testify evaded questions, stalled, or merely offered vague promises about being engaged and committed to comprehensive changes. The administration has also delayed for as long as possible responding to data requests we have made.

In fact, rather than address these problems head on, Gov. Walz seems disinterested. We’ve asked him to engage and help us fix the department, but instead he has placed his priorities elsewhere — like his newly formed sub-cabinet to fight climate change.


That’s not good enough.

Even if the new commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, is sincerely interested in overhauling the culture of failure at DHS and fixing the countless problems, it may be an impossible task. The agency is simply too big, with too many important programs, too many moving parts and too much bureaucracy.

Which is why the only logical step is to break it up into smaller, more manageable departments.

I would love to hear your feedback. Let me know what you think at . Fixing DHS is going to be one of our top priorities, and your ideas will help us do it the right way.

Sen. Jason Rarick represents District 11 in the Minnesota Senate.

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