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Straight Talk From Steve: Dannette Smith

Last week Dannette Smith announced her resignation as director of Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) effective August 4, 2023. I was not surprised by the announcement. I am not suggesting that Smith did a poor job as director. Dannette Smith did about as well as any director could have done given the set of circumstances she inherited and the state of affairs of DHHS that she was dealt when she first took over the Department four years ago.

DHHS is Nebraska’s largest state agency. The agency employs approximately 5,000 people and has an annual budget of $6.3 billion, which includes both state and federal dollars. The agency is comprised of five divisions, namely behavioral health, children and family services, developmental disabilities, Medicaid and long-term care, and public health.

When Dannette Smith took over as director in 2019 DHHS was already in a heap of trouble. Let me explain. In 2018 the voters approved Medicaid expansion at the ballot box, and DHHS took two long years to roll out a new plan which was ultimately rejected by the federal government. DHHS also oversees the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, which were also already in disarray. In August 2019 mismanagement of the facility in Geneva allowed several of the resident girls to trash their living quarters and set off the fire sprinklers. This resulted in the girls having to be moved to a temporary facility in Kearney, DHHS closing the facility in Geneva, and DHHS opening up a new facility in Lincoln. Adding insult to injury was the fact that St. Francis Ministries, an outside non-profit contract company from Kansas City, which had already been hired before Smith arrived to oversee child welfare cases in Omaha, was mismanaging state monies and was about to ask for an emergency bailout.

When Danette Smith took over as director of DHHS in 2019 she had no knowledge of the pandemic which would soon reach Nebraska. Armed with little knowledge of COVID-19, DHHS had to write new statewide directive health measures and work with local health departments to curb the spreading of the disease. As you know, these directive health measures temporarily closed schools, churches, and businesses, mandated mask-wearing for everyone going out in public and quarantines for those contracting the disease, and distributed testing and vaccinations discriminately according to those who were deemed to be most vulnerable to the disease.

I share all of this information with you today in order to help you see the current state of affairs that we have with DHHS. Over the course of the past several years, we have seen directors come and go while problems persist at DHHS.

The new director that Gov. Pillen will appoint will have more to clean up at DHHS besides what has already been mentioned. Nursing homes in rural Nebraska have been struggling to survive and few can afford to stay open much longer, Medicaid recipients can no longer find a doctor or a dentist anywhere in Nebraska who accepts new patients, and DHHS will soon run out of $26 million in ARPA funds that the division of child and family services spent on starting new licensed child care programs.

Whoever the Governor appoints as the new DHHS director, I will wish him or her the best and pray for that person’s success. There is much work that needs to be done at DHHS, and we need a director who possesses the skills, the knowledge, and the experience to fix these many problems. Finally, I thank Danette Smith for her service to our State and wish her well as she moves forward with her career.


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