Post-Scandal, Lawmakers Changing Gears on Health Agency

As the state’s largest health agency reels from a scandal over how it awarded contracts to private vendors, lawmakers on Wednesday said they are slowing down on their ambitious — and controversial — plan to restructure it.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, wraps up the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing on Jan. 14, 2015.
Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, wraps up the Sunset Advisory Commission hearing on Jan. 14, 2015.  Bob Daemmrich

As the state’s largest health agency reels from a scandal over how it awarded contracts to private vendors, lawmakers on Wednesday said they are slowing down on their ambitious — and controversial — plan to restructure it.

A panel of lawmakers and citizens last year recommended that the state’s five health and human services agencies, including the massive Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), be combined into one “mega-agency” that was supposed to be more efficient. But now that lawmakers are scrutinizing HHSC's awarding of a $110-million contract outside of the competitive bidding process, state leaders say the massive structural changes recommended by the so-called Sunset Commission should take more time than originally planned.

“In light of recent events I propose that we implement these reforms over an extended timeline,” state Sen. Jane Nelson, who chairs the Sunset Commission, said in a statement. “This allows us more time to monitor the reorganization over the next two sessions," the Flower Mound Republican added.  

Nelson and her Sunset Commission co-chair, state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said in the Wednesday statement that they were developing substitute legislation to reflect the changes.

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If passed, the new bills would direct the health and human services agencies to immediately streamline their “administrative” functions — including contracting and legal services — and create a new Medical and Social Services Division to house the state’s Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

But the five-agency consolidation would move forward on a slower timeline, the lawmakers said. Their bills would combine three agencies —  HHSC, the Department of Aging and Disability Services, and the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services — into one beginning next year. Texas' Department of State Health Services, which oversees public health, and the Department of Family and Protective Services, which manages child welfare, would be looped in starting in 2019.

The bills would also create a “think tank” called the Policy and Performance Office at HHSC to promote coordination within the system.

Advocacy groups for children and people with disabilities have pushed back against the consolidation plan, saying the state’s neediest populations would be neglected under the new structure.

Price said while he stands by the consolidation plan, "utilizing a graduated approach for the development of these recommendations is wise so that more time can be devoted to proper implementation."

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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