Lawmakers debate DHHS oversight


March 24th, 2011

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Omaha, NE – Some Nebraska lawmakers say the Department of Health and Human Services needs more flexibility to run its operation. But in debate at the Capitol Wednesday, others argued the complaint-ridden department needs more oversight, not less.

Sen. Christensen says DHHS receives the most complaints of any department (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Senators showed some sharp divisions over a proposal to give DHHS discretion to hire 25 more people outside of state personnel rules. The Department has been a focus of controversy over several issues recently. It lost federal funding after reports of abuse and neglect of patients at the Beatrice State Developmental Center. It’s now on its way to regaining that funding. The Department has also been criticized for confusion surrounding the privatization of child welfare services.

Senator Russ Karpisek of Wilber, sponsor of the legislation, said it would give DHHS Director Kerry Winterer more flexibility in managing the department.

“I think he’s got his hands on the steering wheel, and he’s trying to take it in the right direction,” Karpisek said. “He just needs a few more tools that he can work with. These are some that he thinks he needs.”
The proposal drew opposition from senators who argued that the department needs more oversight, not less. Among them was Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial.

“We’re sitting here with a department that has all kinds of problems,” Christensen said. “I don’t know of a senator who has told me that they don’t get calls, complaints. It’s the number one complaint I get – this department. And we set here and we just want to give them more control, do what you want, hide it from us. Let’s go forward. I don’t even know what to say.”

Senators voted 35-7 second round approval for the bill. They also gave second-round approval to another measure that would simplify the process for getting food stamps, or SNAP benefits. The proposal would do away with a requirement that people show that along with having a low income, they also don’t have substantial assets. Under an amendment from Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, they would still be prevented from getting food assistance if they had savings of more than $25,000.

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