The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has been hemorrhaging tax dollars for years because of mistakes and mismanagement.
Last week HHS officials themselves put a price tag on the total for the past five years. It was a jaw-dropper -- $57 million worth of fines and penalties paid to federal agencies.
Let your mind ponder the implications.
That amount of money could have paid for bridge repair; there wouldn’t be as many roads closed in rural Nebraska. Fifty-seven million dollars could have provided a meaningful amount of property tax relief. Heck, every man, woman and child in Nebraska could have an extra $30 in their pockets.
However, things are improving in HHS, officials told state senators on the Approriations Committee.
We want to believe them.
And, to be fair, Courtney Phillips, the new CEO brought in last year by Gov. Pete Ricketts, deserves a chance to turn things around in the sprawling department.
Some of the payments go back for mistakes made more than a decade ago. One of the biggest – payment of $14.2 million -- goes back to the bungled attempt to privatize the state’s child welfare system.
It has been an open secret for years that money was being wasted at HHS. In 2013 then-State Auditor Mike Foley complained that HHS staffers did not “understand their own rules.”
Foley said that Nebraskans send about $20 billion a year to Washington. “When it does come back to Nebraska, shouldn't we be spending it properly?" he asked.
There is, however, a subtle change in the latest revelations of waste at HHS. For years it has been people outside the department sounding the alarm and raising the red flags.
This time it was the department itself.
The department has gradually been increasing the size of an internal audit team that began in 2011 with one person. Now internal auditor Garet Buller has a seven-member team. The department has been digging into its operation to make sure that federal tax dollars are being used in accordance with federal rules. “The longer these things go on, the more it costs,” Phillips said.
Other steps toward improvement include more staff training on how to manage and document federal contracts and grants, and doing more follow-up to ensure that front-line workers make corrections outlined by auditors.
The necessary focus on bookkeeping and paperwork should not obscure the fact that the department is charged with programs to help the most vulnerable Nebraskans, like children who are wards of the state and developmentally disabled Nebraskans who are unable to care for themselves. That's an important mission.
The small signs that the department doing more things the right way are encouraging. We hope they continue.