Editorial: A $20 million mistake and a lot of questions

Last modified: 9/27/2015 1:15:38 AM
The state Department of Health and Human Services has some serious explaining to do.

How did it miss $20 million meant to help people with developmental disabilities? What’s more, how could it miss that money when dozens of people were waiting for services? How can the department make sure such an oversight doesn’t happen again?

The state and those it serves need answers. But so far the department hasn’t been exactly forthcoming.

Spokesman Jake Leon told the Monitor’s Allie Morris that reasons “include but are not limited to workforce recruitment and retention for those providing services to this complex population.” The Monitor’s Ray Duckler tracked down a source who said an HHS accounting “wiz” had left her job and not been replaced.

The picture painted isn’t comforting. That’s why the fact that the office of the Legislative Budget Assistant is conducting a performance audit of the state’s Bureau of Developmental Services comes as welcome news. The bureau serves the population at the center of this story.

And while that audit may have begun before the news of the $20 million surplus broke, it would be surprising indeed if it did not expand to look at the causes of this mess. The office has produced strong work recently in the area of food safety, so its input here will be welcomed.

Such an assessment is just the first step, though.

More broadly, the department should seriously consider points raised by Amy Messer, the legal director of the Disability Rights Center. In an op-ed for the Monitor, she highlighted the lengthy waits experienced by those seeking services.

“For older, newly identified adults, by law the waiting period is not to exceed 90 days. Yet people often wait many months or years before services are in place,” she wrote.

And this raises a question. If money for services is approved and distributed by the state to an agency, what happens if a client isn’t yet approved to receive those services? What happens if weeks or months pass, state money piles up, and the client still isn’t served?

Wouldn’t it make sense for that money to help someone else, sooner rather than later?

The department shouldn’t depend on an accounting “wiz” who knows where all the dollars go. Departmental know-how takes time to grow and is easily lost. There should be solid, enforceable guidelines and expectations put in place to track money directed to providers and to make sure it’s used promptly.

Leon told us Friday that the department can and does work with agencies to redirect funds when needed.

He also said the department plans to streamline processes, enhance monitoring and generally look at the way the state delivers support to those in need. All of this is good to know, and will be useful in preventing problems in the future.

But promises only go so far. HHS will have to deliver.

It’s easy to imagine how dollars can go missing in layers of bureaucracy, with federal, state and local levels involved. And the Legislature and governor have made matters worse by grossly understaffing HHS. Those providing services on the ground are understandably cautious, too, with the transition to a managed-care Medicaid program.

But understanding an oversight does not excuse it.

The department must make the best of the situation in which it now finds itself. The Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office audit will provide valuable information, but for now, stricter regulations and tighter tracking of public money must be made a priority.

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