Agency Primer: Department of Health Services

Agency Primer by IRG:

Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services

The current Department of Health Services has undergone many changes in its long history. In the late 1800s, all of Wisconsin’s institutions for the disabled, mentally ill, and prisons were overseen by separate governance boards. In a series of reforms from 1871 through 1891, the state undertook the process of consolidating these functions under one unit of government, the State Board of Control of Wisconsin Reformatory, Charitable and Penal Institutions. In 1876, the state created the State Board of Health to take on many of the functions we now think of as public health; epidemiology, health inspections, and testing of water supplies. In the 1930s, the state gradually expanded its public welfare programs culminating with the creation of the State Department of Public Welfare in 1939.

In 1967, the executive branch reorganization act created the Department of Health and Social Services. Like other agencies at the time, this new Department was governed by a Board appointed by the Governor, the Board of Health and Social Services. The Board appointed the Secretary of the Department until that authority was given to the Governor in 1975. In the same year, the legislature reorganized the Department and by 1996, the Department was rebranded the Department of Health and Family Services. In 1989, the legislature created the Department of Corrections and moved adult corrections to the new Department. 1995 Act 27 reorganized executive branch functions again. Responsibility of juveniles was moved to the Department of Corrections and various other programs were moved to the Department of Workforce Development. In 2007, the Department of Children and Families was created and split off its current functions from what is now the Department of Health Services.

In 2020, DHS became the focus of the state when Governor Evers imposed a lockdown of “non-essential” businesses through the department’s public health authority. Although the lockdown was eventually overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the ramifications of this decision are still being felt today.

Today, the Department of Health Services is the second biggest cabinet agency with over 6,000 employees and a biennial budget of roughly $30 billion. The department’s largest program is Medical Assistance (MA) or Medicaid. The 2021-2023 budget for MA is about $25 billion, all funds.

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