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Health and Welfare Not So Healthy

Gov. Risch revamps agency, director


Low workplace morale. High turnover. Low pay. Next-to-zero faith in the wisdom of upper management. That's just a cue-card version of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, according to a February evaluation by the state Office of Performance Evaluations.

For an agency with more than 3,000 employees and a budget of more than $1.6 billion in state and federal money, that ain't so good. So, in his very first executive order as governor, signed with a blue Sharpie pen, Jim Risch has replaced the department head and ordered a reorganization of the whole kit and caboodle.

"I want a very clear chain of command at Health and Welfare," Risch said. The new director, Dick Armstrong, comes to Risch from Blue Cross Idaho, where he was in charge of sales and marketing for the last 16 years.

Out goes Karl Kurtz, who headed the department under former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, now the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. His was a head most political observers expected might roll when Risch took office. So far, Risch has opted to keep seven other department heads, including those at Idaho State Police to the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Health and Welfare, Risch said, is in need of too much reform not to make changes. A staff reorganization Risch presented reshuffles several department heads.

The February audit, which used responses from about 2,000 staff, zoomed in on the Division of Welfare, where 45 percent of responses rated morale as "poor" or "very poor." Likewise staff from the Family and Community Services and Medicaid divisions were down in the dumps. The agency's 17.5 precent turnover rate is among the highest in state government.