Confirmation hearing for CEO of Nebraska DHHS revolves around religion, sin, social media

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh peppers Steve Corsi with questions about his past social media posts and more during tense hearing

By: - February 8, 2024 5:45 am

Steve Corsi, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, right, testifies during his confirmation hearing in front of a legislative committee Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include comment and context from Gov. Jim Pillen’s office.

LINCOLN — A legislative hearing Wednesday to confirm the leader of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services diverted at times from agency goals to religion, sin, social media and more.

Steve Corsi, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. (Courtesy of Nebraska DHHS)

DHHS CEO Steve Corsi took the helm Sept. 11 but faced immediate opposition a month prior to that, when Gov. Jim Pillen named him to the position. This criticism included past controversies regarding pay and oversight during his service in Missouri and Wyoming, respectively, as well as his activity on X, formerly Twitter.

Corsi, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology and a postdoctoral re-specialization in educational psychology, worked to set a different tone Wednesday. He said he appreciates Pillen’s recognition of how his background and experience may prove beneficial.

“I believe when called to public service, there is only one right answer: yes,” Corsi told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

After high school, Corsi said, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and spent nine years on active duty as a jet engine mechanic. He was commissioned with the National Guard in 2017.

Commitments and promises

Corsi committed to improving DHHS’s timeliness and quality of economic assistance processing, continuing to overhaul the state foster care system and addressing child care needs through focused efforts to increase available safe, high-quality early childhood education.

“We will focus not only on meeting the immediate needs of Nebraskans but also assisting Nebraskans as they move toward self-sufficiency,” Corsi testified.

DHHS is working to add 110 new positions for the Lincoln Regional Center and provide employees there with new equipment and additional training, Corsi said. Many employees have protested working conditions at the facility.

Mental health specialists, or techs, of the Lincoln Regional Center rally outside the Governor’s Mansion. Oct. 21, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Asked about a rumor that the governor wants DHHS to cut spending by 18%, which multiple senators shared with the Examiner, Corsi said he has never heard that number, though he said future layoffs are likely in Pillen’s ask to reduce the footprint of state government. 

Corsi shot down a second rumor that mass layoffs could come at the department’s Friday town hall for employees.

“There’s no truth (that) 18% of non-union staff are going to be cut from DHHS?” State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha asked Corsi during the hearing.

“No, ma’am,” he responded.

A ‘sampling’ of opposition

Cavanaugh, one of seven committee members who will determine whether to advance Corsi’s appointment to the full Legislature, peppered Corsi with most of the questions asked during the hearing.

Opposing materials

Read the full collection of materials that State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and her staff prepared for Wednesday’s hearing here.

At one point, she passed out binders to fellow committee members and to Corsi that included a few dozen of Corsi’s likes, posts and reposts on X that were captured last fall before he privatized his account.

“This is just a sampling of them,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh, who provided more examples to the Examiner after the hearing, said it’s not the number of tweets but the pattern that should be concerning. She described it as a “predisposition to discrimination based on race and gender identity and sexuality and possibly even religion and political affiliations.”

Corsi walked Cavanaugh through multiple “likes” at her request, providing context or explanations on topics such as abortion, homosexuality and race:

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha also went toe-to-toe with DHHS chief medical officer Dr. Timothy Tesmer during his confirmation hearing last year. May 25, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Abortion — Corsi said the two will have to “agree to disagree” on whether abortion is health care. Corsi said he doesn’t consider it to be health care. Cavanaugh said she “would not exist” if abortion was not health care.

Homosexuality — Corsi said Scripture is “very clear” that it is a sin. He also said it’s an “unfortunate interpretation” by Cavanaugh that his appointment could cause a “hostile work environment” for LGBTQ employees at DHHS.

Race — As a man of “deep faith” who believes in the Bible, Corsi said, he believes that everyone is descended from Adam and Eve and that there is one race: the human race.

‘The human race’

“I believe that everybody should be treated the same, should be cared for and loved and treated with respect and compassion,” Corsi continued.

Cavanaugh asked whether this meant Corsi would not address health care disparities between people of different races, which she said is “problematic” at best.

Corsi said Cavanaugh was adding to his words and said he is aware of disparities and would work to address them, as he did in Missouri regarding infant and maternal mortality rates.

Cavanaugh also asked about Corsi “liking” a post that said the worldview of Democrats is “godless,” and she asked if he thought that included her or other Democrats on the committee.

“I think there are parts,” Corsi responded. “And I think there are probably parts of the other side of the aisle that are as well.”

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. May 19, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner).

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who was among those first bringing attention to Corsi’s online activity in August, has vowed that the Legislature will reject Corsi’s confirmation. She isn’t a member of the HHS committee but attended part of the hearing and sat behind him.

‘Love your neighbor’

At times, the conversation became more philosophical, discussing the role of religion in government.

“In response to your comments, I would say that my religious beliefs are my religious beliefs and yours are yours, and each other person’s in here are theirs,” Corsi said.

Corsi explained that biblically there are 613 commands and anytime anyone engages contrary to those, it’s referenced as sin. Everyone has sinned, he added, though the “second greatest commandment” offers a path forward: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Loving your neighbor is the standard — it doesn’t matter what people do. … It doesn’t matter who people love. It doesn’t matter what they look like,” Corsi said. “Every human being is created in the image of God and should be treated with compassion, respect, love and dignity.”

This means ensuring that every Nebraska citizen is receiving the best, equal care or service that they can and need to succeed in the best possible way, he said.

“I’m not here today going through the confirmation process as a missionary,” Corsi added. “I’m here today going through the confirmation process as a CEO.”

Hearing ‘created more trust’

After the hearing, State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, chair of the HHS Committee, said the hearing was positive because it helped answer questions of Corsi’s perspective and goals, while flushing out concerns.

State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. May 22, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Hansen told the Examiner that he has no concerns with Corsi’s appointment and that Corsi seems very competent to lead DHHS, although he said it’s early and that difficult decisions for Corsi are still to come.

“I’m hoping this created more trust among not just our committee but people who actually got a chance to hear from Dr. Corsi,” Hansen said.

Laura Strimple, a spokesperson for Pillen, said the governor is thrilled with Corsi’s performance, including in addressing critical staffing needs, identifying areas for federal reimbursement and finding additional funding for the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney.

“CEO Corsi has established a culture of camaraderie and excellence at the top of the agency and has recruited other great leadership from elsewhere in the country,” Strimple said in a Thursday email.

Cavanaugh said that while Corsi’s hearing provided a robust conversation and touched on many of her concerns, as well as those of constituents, there are more issues to address. One involves Corsi’s former employment with Epiphany Associates, a Utah-based company contracting with the State of Nebraska to reduce state spending.

Corsi worked for Epiphany last year from Jan. 2 to Sept. 7, days before he started the CEO role in Nebraska. The state entered the contract with Epiphany July 1, 2023. 

The Governor’s Office did not have an immediate response Wednesday evening when asked for clarification about the timeline of Corsi’s appointment and the Epiphany contract.

Cavanaugh also accused Corsi of violating state law by not giving the office of inspector general access to department data in order to independently review agency facilities. DHHS is following Attorney General Mike Hilgers’ opinion that the law is unconstitutional. Corsi said he’s confident the Legislature will find a resolution soon.

“I continue to stand in significant reservation of this appointment,” Cavanaugh told the Examiner. “There was nothing brought forth today that gave me confidence in his (Corsi’s) ability to lead the department on behalf of Nebraskans.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.