LINCOLN — Questions about splitting up the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services drew a quick rebuff from the agency's top official Monday.
Department CEO Kerry Winterer said any proposal for restructuring HHS should start by studying whether a change would fix any perceived problems.
“Let's look at how it's working now and, to the extent the Legislature wants to break it apart, what's the downside to that?” he told members of the Appropriations Committee. “I don't think the Legislature wants to do something just to do something.”
Winterer's comments were in response to questions from State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the committee chairman.
During a hearing on the HHS budget, Mello said it may be time to “de-consolidate” the mega-agency.
HHS was created more than 15 years ago by merging five state agencies and divisions. The resulting structure employs about one-third of state workers and accounts for about half of the state budget.
Mello pointed to a series of problems that have occurred in HHS programs.
Among them is the Beatrice State Developmental Center losing Medicaid funding for continued quality of care problems, the troubled experiment with privatizing child welfare, the rocky rollout of a public benefits call-center system and recent state audits questioning the oversight of public benefits payments.
Mello also said lawmakers struggle to get answers and information from the department and suggested that having multiple smaller agencies might improve accountability and transparency.
“The experience I've had in my six years on Appropriations leads me to believe that there's some pretty wholesale changes that need to be made in your department,” he said.
Mello said this might be the time to consider a change, with a new governor coming in next year. Gov. Dave Heineman has been in office for 10 years and is barred by term limits from seeking re-election.
But Winterer cautioned against thinking that if there are problems with HHS, a reorganization would solve them.
“I think sometimes there's an attitude in government that 'We're going to restructure things and that's going to fix things,' ” he said.
Winterer said there are economies from having the state's safety net programs share basic administrative functions, as they do under the current department structure.
Bringing several programs together in one agency also promotes working together on an informal basis, he said.
The 1997 merger was intended in part to address a lack of coordination and cooperation among the previous agencies.
HHS has been an issue in the gubernatorial race, with GOP candidate and State Auditor Mike Foley vowing to take the agency apart piece by piece.