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Senators seeking investigation of St. Francis Ministries & deal they made with Nebraska DHHS

Posted at 7:48 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 01:07:34-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — It has been a turbulent few months for Saint Francis Ministries and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Back in 2019, DHHS gave Saint Francis a big contract to handle child welfare in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

But late last year, Saint Francis told the state they’re running out of money and could be out of business by this month, so the state gave them a new contract with more money.

Now several state senators want to see a special committee investigate just what happened.

Multiple people told the Executive Board of the Nebraska Legislature they want a special committee investigation, complete with subpoena power, to determine how well Saint Francis has been doing their job, and how the Department of Health and Human Services gave them the bid.

“We must gather all the facts so we can understand all the facts so that this never happens again,” says Monika Gross, who was interim President and CEO at PromiseShip, the now defunct predecessor of Saint Francis.

The situation began when the state of Nebraska initially gave Saint Francis Ministries a five-year, $197 million contract to oversee child welfare in Douglas and Sarpy Counties in the summer of 2019.

That $197 million was 60 percent of the next lowest bid, from PromiseShip.

Former CEO of DHHS Kerry Winterer told the board Wednesday, many in his department were skeptical of the contract.

"The low bidder could not provide the services for the amount of money that they bid. It was self-evident with anybody that would have known anything about child welfare services and such,” says Winterer.

The predictions came true, and Saint Francis alerted the state in late 2020 that they needed more money, or they’d go bankrupt.

Then just a few weeks ago, the state replaced that contract and gave Saint Francis an emergency 25-month contract worth $147 million.

That figure amounts to over $2 million extra a month than the previous contract.

The former head of DHHS is not a fan of the new deal.

“To go ahead, go forward and give them more money, is just the wrong approach,” says Winterer.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, says a special committee can figure out how the state got themselves into such a tenuous contract.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, also of Omaha, who’s on the executive board, seemed to agree.

“We need to be prepared for the next time they come with their hand out saying we can’t do it and then if we don’t have a plan B, we’re just going to have to write another check,” says Lathrop.

The lone opponent at the hearing was current CEO of DHHS, Dannette Smith.

She says that she has been transparent with the Health and Human Services committee on what went on and why the state made the deal. She thinks the HHS committee should investigate, instead of a special committee.

“Because the Health and Human Services committee is so aware of the work we do, the things we do well, the things we have weaknesses in and opportunity. They just seem like the right fit,” says Smith.

But to that, there was push back.

“I’m sort of confused about this unwillingness for transparency when they’re clearly having economic issues and contracts that are not being met,” says Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

The main problem with Smith's plan for some senators, is that the committee would have not have subpoena power.

Lathrop doesn’t think, without that power, they’d ever get the proper documents and questions the right people would show up to testify, saying all of that is a fantasy without a subpoena.

“The subpoena power and the ability to secure testimony is critical to getting to the bottom of these kind of things,” says Lathrop.

After the hearing, Cavanaugh told 3 News Now that the HHS committee, which she’s on, provides oversight of the department, but she’s seeking something different.

“This is more than oversight, this is looking into multiple departments and agency processes, and that’s going to take the expertise of some of the other members,” says Cavanaugh.

If a special committee is formed, they’d have until December 1, 2022 to report their findings.