DHHS Program Welcomes Legislative Audit

Lincoln, Neb.-- The Department of Health and Human Services has fallen under State Auditor Mike Foley's microscope once again.

This time, it's the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, which helps about 43,000 people with heating and cooling assistance.

In a letter dated Dec. 23, 2013, to state Senator John Harms, Foley called for a further audit of this program by the Legislature's Performance Audit Committee.

One of the reasons - $5.8 million that Foley said went unspent and has now lapsed, returning to the federal government.

Foley called it disrespectful of Nebraska taxpayers' dollars.

"This is not a difficult program," Foley said.

"It's been around for decades. We should be able to understand it at this point, we should be able to account for those dollars accurately and responsibly, and when we don't, we fail the people of Nebraska."

In an interview with 10/11, Foley argued he sees confusion and misunderstanding of state and federal regulations, at all levels of the DHHS.

"The net result is the people who are deserving these benefits may not be getting them," Foley said.

But, Kerrey Winterer, the CEO of the DHHS, disagrees.

"All of the people who were eligible," Winterer said, "and applied for benefits, got their benefits. We had no authority to pay out additional benefits."

Winter said they didn't have the legal ability to spend that extra money. And if they had, and the federal government gave LIHEAP less money next year, those in need may have lost out on future help.

"We have to be conservative," Winterer said.

"In terms of balancing the number of dollars available versus providing benefits to the greatest number of people to do the greatest amount of good."

Winterer said they don't know how much money the federal government will give them each year. He feared that trying to expand the program to cover more people may have meant people that were eligible for help this year wouldn't get it next year.

He said Foley didn't come right out and call for program expansion, but he said the letter implied this is what Foley meant.

Foley argued the DHHS could have done more to use the money, like amend the state plan or apply for a federal waiver.

But Winterer said otherwise.

"[Foley] seems to believe simply because there was money out there," Winterer said, "that the federal government was providing, we ought to find a way to pay it out. That's just contrary to the state plan and how the plan operates."

Last year, Foley said they found LIHEAP had given aid to 19,000 people that weren't expecting it. And that LIHEAP had sent checks to people whom were deceased.

Foley said those issues have been addressed, but that serious problems remain in the way money is handled inside the DHHS.

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