Committees proposed to investigate DHHS, Corrections

Two proposals to establish special investigative committees of the Legislature were discussed during an Executive Board hearing Feb. 10.

LR400, introduced by Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas, would establish the ACCESSNebraska Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature to study the ACCESSNebraska system. ACCESSNebraska is an online and call center system developed by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in 2009 to determine public benefit eligibility and to deliver those benefits to clients.

Under the proposal, the scope of the investigation would include but not be limited to the:
• experiences of clients and their families;
• adequacy of the technology used within the ACCESSNebraska system; and
• adequacy of staffing and training of DHHS employees working within the system.

Dubas said the state has experienced a variety of problems with ACCESSNebraska since its inception, including long wait times for callers, high worker turnover and lost paperwork.

“This program needs a very comprehensive [examination] to determine where we are at and what we need to do at multiple levels to take corrective action,” she said.

The committee would consist of seven members of the Legislature appointed by the Executive Board. The committee would be authorized to hold hearings and issue subpoenas as deemed necessary and would issue a report with its findings and recommendations to the Legislature no later than Dec. 15, 2014.

James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed supported the resolution. He said an investigative committee would provide an opportunity to thoroughly study the root problems with ACCESSNebraska and discover possible solutions.

“LR400 represents the best approach to improve the ACCESSNebraska system,” Goddard said.

Thomas Pristow, director of Children and Family Services at DHHS, testified in a neutral capacity.

Pristow said the department has worked hard to improve the system but acknowledged that problems persist. He said DHHS would be willing to work with an oversight committee to continue to improve the system.

“I’d be happy to come before this group or any other group to talk about ACCESSNebraska and how it’s doing,” he said.

The committee voted 9-0 to advance LR400 to general file.

Testimony also was heard on LR424, introduced by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, which would establish the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee in order to study the circumstances of Nikko Jenkins’ incarceration and release.

Lathrop said the case – in which Jenkins allegedly committed four homicides in Omaha upon his release from prison – highlights issues in the state’s correctional services that the Legislature needs to examine.

“There are systemic problems in corrections that have to do with overcrowding, absence of programming [and] absence of mental health care,” Lathrop said.

As introduced, the resolution would establish an investigative committee composed of five members of the Legislature appointed by the Executive Board and would issue a report to the Legislature no later than Dec. 15, 2014.

Among other issues, the committee would study the following with respect to the state Department of Correctional Services:
• administration of good time laws;
• policies relating to the segregation of inmates;
• adequacy of programs designed to rehabilitate inmates;
• availability of mental health care and measures in place to ensure that inmates receive appropriate mental health care or confinement through the civil commitment process; and
• transition of inmates from incarceration to the community at large.

Marshall Lux, director of the state’s Ombudsman’s Office, testified in support of the resolution. Lux said his office issued an extensive report on the Jenkins case to the state Department of Corrections and received a three-sentence reply.

“Our report actually only scratches the surface in regard to what can be learned about our system from Mr. Jenkins’ case,” he said, noting that Jenkins had been involved in both the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems since the age of seven.

“What we’ll likely find out … is that there were failures as well in the juvenile justice system and in the child welfare system in addressing this young man’s issues,” Lux said. “His case is not unique.”

No opposition testimony was given on either resolution.

After voting 9-0 to amend LR424 to increase membership of the investigative committee from five members to seven, the Executive Board voted 9-0 to advance the resolution to general file.

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