The head of Idaho’s largest state agency — the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare — is retiring.
Dave Jeppesen, who for five years led Idaho’s state health department — an agency with about 3,000 employees and a $5.4 billion budget this fiscal year, funded mostly by federal funds — is leaving the role at the end of the year, Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s office announced in a news release on Wednesday.
Former Idaho legislator Dean Cameron, who has directed the Idaho Department of Insurance since 2015, will serve as interim director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare until a permanent director is selected, Little’s office announced.
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Little will begin the process of recruiting a permanent health and welfare director in the spring of 2024, according to the release, and Cameron will continue to serve as director of Idaho Department of Insurance while serving as interim health and welfare director. Permanent appointments by the governor are subject to approval in the Idaho Senate.
“Serving as DHW director has been the greatest honor of my career, and hands down my favorite job,” Jeppesen said in the release. “I am grateful to Gov. Little and the people of Idaho for entrusting me with such an important role. The department and its valuable employees work tirelessly to carry out a significant mission – to strengthen the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. I know I leave the agency in good hands with Dean Cameron, who I consider a mentor and friend.”
The sprawling state agency has, under Jeppesen, navigated several controversial issues and tough moments in Idaho’s history, including the entire COVID-19 pandemic, pushback over a child welfare case linked to anti-government activist Ammon Bundy and legislative scrutiny over the budget of its largest program, Medicaid.
“Dave Jeppesen promised me two to four years in this position, and I am grateful he gave us five,” Little said in a press release. “Dave has always had my full support and confidence, and I am glad to see him enjoy retirement after a successful career. He deserves it.”
Appointed by Little in 2019, Jeppesen led the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic, making frequent public press conference appearances to update the public on the state of the disease’s impact on the state’s hospital resources.
Jeppesen declared Idaho hospitals to be in crisis statewide for more than two months in 2021 as hospitalizations from the virus surged. Idaho never had a statewide mask mandate, but local governments at times required them and limited gatherings.
“Dave led the agency through major changes and improvements, and I join many, many people in Idaho in expressing my appreciation for his accomplishments and service,” Little said in the release.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare runs social programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women and Infant Children program, provides public health services, regulates long-term care facilities, runs the state’s mental health hospitals, provides child welfare and services for people with developmental disabilities.
State health department scrutinized over child care grant program
This year, the health agency has been embroiled in political controversy over $72 million in federal grants meant to help school-aged children recover from pandemic-era learning loss.
An audit published in August found a lack of internal controls in the department led to funds in that pool being used for ineligible purposes. The department disagreed with all of the audit’s findings. Idaho state lawmakers on the Legislature’s powerful budget committee last week mulled how they’d respond after Jeppesen refused to submit a corrective action plan.
Jeppesen and other top agency officials sued Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador in March, seeking to set aside his civil subpoenas for information about the grants. A special prosecutor recently dropped those demands for information.
Just last month, former state legislator Ron Nate, now a senior policy fellow for the Idaho Freedom Foundation, called for Jeppesen to lose his job.
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New Health and Welfare interim director has been involved in state politics for decades
Before heading the state health department, Jeppesen worked in finance and as chief marketing officer for the insurer Blue Cross of Idaho, according to his agency biography.
In an appearance before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee soon after being named state health department director in January 2019, Jeppesen told lawmakers as a fifth-generation Idahoan he wanted to be part of a legacy for future Idahoans, the Idaho Press reported at the time.
“From my experience in the private sector, it’s clear to me that Idaho can lead the country with … solutions that deliver affordable and accessible health care,” he told the budget committee, according to the Idaho Press.
“The Department of Health and Welfare exists to serve the people of Idaho,” Jeppesen told Idaho budget writers in January 2023. “Our mission is to strengthen the health, safety and independence of Idahoans. In other words, we exist to help people live their best lives.”
Cameron takes over as state health department director in 2024. An Idaho insurance agent, Cameron served 25 years in the Idaho Senate.
“Dean Cameron brings a wealth of experience and knowledge both in the legislative branch and the executive branch as well as the private sector,” Little said in the release. “I have been fortunate to have Dean in my cabinet since I took office, and I appreciate him for stepping into this role after so many years of working together.”
As director, Jeppesen earned $211,000 each year. Cameron, as head of the Department of Insurance, earned $163,009 each year.
Agency oversees Medicaid, whose budget has drawn legislative attention
Medicaid’s rising budget in recent years has drawn scrutiny by lawmakers. The Medicaid Managed Care Task Force that met throughout this summer and fall focused on finding ways to save money in Medicaid, possibly by having benefits be managed by private companies through a so-called managed care model, which is popular nationally.
A final report by that committee is forthcoming, but lawmakers approved plans to draft legislation to create a new committee to oversee Medicaid’s existing contracts — which are split between care managed by private companies and care managed by doctors, while Medicaid runs some benefits.
In the upcoming legislative session, Idaho Medicaid has requested $5.7 million total in funds to support 62 more staffers, which agency officials say will be crucial to save costs and maintain federal funding, which is the source of most of Idaho Medicaid’s funds.
The Idaho state health department, like other states, could not remove people from Medicaid during the pandemic amid federal protections. Since those protections were lifted in April, Idaho began removing people from Medicaid faster than most states, removing 121,000 people by August. Idaho Medicaid served about 450,000 people. At least 13,000 Idahoans removed from Medicaid have re-enrolled so far.
In 2020, Medicaid expanded to include a broader range of low income earners, as approved by Idaho voters in 2018.
Idaho Capital Sun editor-in-chief Christina Lords contributed to this report.