By Esme Murphy

ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — There are more questions Wednesday as lawmakers confronted a report that the state Department of Human Services overpaid tribes $29 million for opioid treatments.

The legislative auditor who wrote the report says the overpayments went on for years and years, while DHS assured the tribes everything was just fine.

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As Esme Murphy shows us, today’s hearing is among the first to tackle significant issues at the state’s largest agency.

The hearing laid bare what all parties agree are serious problems at the Department of Human Services, where millions of dollars were allocated without anyone knowing who gave the green light and who was monitoring the situation.

Legislators worried openly that similar multimillion-dollar problems could exist.

“What else is going on that we still don’t know about yet?” Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said.

The commissioner of Human Services testified that DHS repeatedly gave the tribes bad information.

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“The guidance that was given to tribal governments was wrong and it’s impossible for us to serve Minnesotans in a trustworthy way if they believe interactions with DHS will leave them on the hook for tens of millions of dollars,” Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said.

The tribes say it would be unfair for them to have to repay the money when the report says they did nothing wrong.

“We are optimistic that a legislative fix can prevent the situation from re-occurring and provide fairness in how payments are administered,” Danielle Stevens, assistant director of behavioral health for the White Earth Band said.

Ultimately, the $29 million will have to be repaid to the federal government, but legislators want to know where that money will come from.

“Do you know how hard we worked to find $29 million for anything?” Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Anoka, said.

The legislative report appears to be lending fuel to the argument that the Department of Human Services is simply too big and may need to be divided up or completely reorganized.

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Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he plans to use the legislative auditor’s report as a template to continue to improve the department.

Esme Murphy