- Associated Press - Friday, February 6, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday that a Louisiana health official will be the new chief executive officer for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which has come under scrutiny for its handling of child welfare services and other issues.

Courtney Phillips, who has worked in Louisiana’s health department since 2003, will fill the position beginning April 2, Ricketts said

Phillips currently serves as deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals under Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The state agency oversees a range of public health services, including programs for residents dealing with physical or developmental disabilities and mental health issues.

The announcement concludes a nationwide search for a leader to transform a beleaguered system criticized for problems with the child welfare system, as well as ACCESS Nebraska, a service that helps Nebraska residents apply for public benefits. Ricketts said Phillips will be able to create a culture of continuous improvement.

“Her expertise will help state government to work better for the children who are in the care of the state, for individuals who live in state facilities or through our support in the community, and for all those who rely on public services,” he said.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has six divisions with a combined budget of $3.5 billion. Phillips will be paid $200,000 a year.

The state tried to privatize its welfare system in 2009, but four of the five providers ended their contracts citing lack of funding and an unsustainable number of children. The state then restored its public child-welfare services statewide, except in Omaha, served by the lone remaining regional provider. But private providers said the financial troubles damaged the state’s network of counselors, group homes and other service providers for neglected and abused children.

In January 2014, the federal government gave the state 30 days to pay the $22 million dollars it owed for failing to properly track payments to foster parents during the privatization endeavor. The amount has since been negotiated down to about $16.5 million.

The department has also faced complaints about errors and delays in its ACCESS Nebraska program, which processes applications and renewals for food stamps and Medicaid. A lawsuit in August alleged that more than 30 percent of applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, weren’t processed in the regulated 30-day time frame.

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