Ex-Minnesota DHS official ‘pretty disappointed' by agency's direction

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The former medical director at Minnesota’s Department of Human Services says he’s disappointed that agency officials have dismissed his concerns about the silencing of doctors and the need for stronger oversight.

Dr. Jeff Schiff, who was fired in June, said in an interview that DHS needed an independent oversight board because lawmakers and the governor’s office were incapable of overseeing Minnesota’s largest agency and its $18 billion budget.

After his ouster, Schiff said Minnesota is now one of a handful of states that doesn’t have a full-time medical director. That will have consequences as DHS provides services for 1 million Minnesotans, he said.

“This buries the doctor’s input deep inside, below a whole lot of other bureaucracy, where it doesn’t necessarily have to be heard,” Schiff said.

Schiff’s firing came just before a series of resignations among top DHS officials this summer. Overpayments and internal investigations have also come to light, rocking the agency.

Pam Wheelock, the interim DHS commissioner, was dismissive of Schiff’s concerns and said the agency already has significant clinical expertise and multiple advisory boards.

“Some have suggested that an independent entity oversee DHS. That is of questionable value for the taxpayer resources it would require,” Wheelock said in an emailed statement, which was almost identical to a previous comment provided last week.

However, Gov. Tim Walz struck a more accommodating tone than Wheelock when asked about Schiff’s request for more medical input and stronger oversight.

“He’s not wrong. I agree,” Walz told FOX 9. “My charge to my agencies is, surface all of these things. Every large organization has these challenges. The problem we have many times in government is, we fail slowly.”

Outside experts will come in to review DHS, Walz said, comparing the situation to the one facing the state’s vehicle licensing and registration system, MNLARS, earlier this year.

Two state Senate committees, controlled by Republicans, have scheduled an Aug. 13 hearing about the issues. Sen. Jim Abeler, the Human Services committee chairman, called Schiff’s concerns “very credible” because he was kept “almost powerless” as medical director.

“They (DHS administrators) don’t tell us anything,” Abeler said in a telephone interview. About next week’s hearing, he said, “if it’s just the commissioner up there parroting some answers, I’m going to be pretty unhappy.”

Schiff has also raised concerns about the future of Minnesota’s response to the opioid crisis. The state is now tasked with monitoring the prescribing practices of 16,000 doctors statewide, and the work will be more difficult without a full-time medical director, he said.

“Who’s going to build the requirements for quality improvement that we want doctors who are overprescribing to go through, if you’re not a clinician?” he said.

Schiff sent an open letter to lawmakers and some state Capitol reporters last week to air some of his concerns. He tried unsuccessfully to raise them with Walz and DHS leadership first, he said.

“I’m a doc, so I want to be really clear about this. I don’t want to be part of a political agenda,” Schiff said. “I’m worried that this will be seen as a way to score points from one side against the Walz administration, and that’s not my goal at all.”