Franklin Countys First News

Politics & Other Mistakes: Break it up

Al Diamon

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (motto: Please Call Back – Oh Wait, That’s the Maine Department of Labor’s Motto – Ours Is Don’t Bother Calling Back) resembles a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee after a Black Lives Matter rally. A pile of rubble.

Except it didn’t take a mob to do all that damage.

Former (and future?) Republican Gov. Paul LePage was the one-man wrecking crew who spent eight years reducing DHHS from an incompetent organization to an inoperative one. Public health nurses? Who needs ‘em, unless we have a pandemic or something. People with mental illness and other behavioral problems? Give ‘em some drugs and a bus ticket to Portland. Child-abuse caseworkers? Let the brats fend for themselves the way LePage was fond of bragging he did. Restaurant inspections? Hey, if you get food poisoning, don’t eat there again. Nursing home inspections? Those people are already sick. A few more germs won’t make much difference.

When Democratic Gov. Janet Mills replaced LePage a year and a half ago, she set about cleaning up his mess. Mills hired more nurses, more caseworkers, more inspectors. But the situation at DHHS improved only marginally. There were two reasons for that lack of progress.

The first one is obvious. The coronavirus disrupted operations to a degree LePage could only have dreamed of achieving. The department was unprepared to provide vital statistics on infection rates, lacked safety gear for inspectors, futzed around trying to process increased welfare claims and had to virtually shut down its child-protective services. In the grand LePage tradition, nothing worked.

The second reason DHHS is still a disaster is more complex. But not so complex that it can’t be reduced to a sentence even a politician could understand: The department is way too big to be competently managed by anyone.

Contrary to popular myth, DHHS is not the largest state department in terms of cost. That honor belongs to the Department of Education, which sucks up nearly 45 percent of the biennial budget. DHHS accounts for a mere 34 percent. But human services require more staff and more programs to address a broader range of problems than any other department. And it’s almost impossible for any human being to oversee such a complicated assortment of bureaucrats to determine if they’re coming close to accomplishing anything.

Guess who knew this. Amazingly enough, it was LePage.

From the time he was first elected in 2010, LePage held sporadic discussions with his staff about dismantling DHHS and creating smaller and more manageable entities. A department of child and family services. A department of health. A department of welfare. A department of mental health.

The problem was such a realignment didn’t save money. In fact, it might have cost even more, since it required extra administrators. And if it didn’t cut spending, LePage wasn’t interested. There was no way he wanted to sell a plan that merely used tax dollars more efficiently and effectively to his base of conservative supporters, particularly if those repurposed dollars were still going to poor people and others of their ilk. The idea got delayed and then dropped.

Since she became governor, Mills has never said a word publicly about breaking up the department. Much too ambitious. Her administration’s approach has been more touchy-feely. “We are for identifying challenges and surfacing them,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew told the Bangor Daily News shortly after taking office in 2019, “because the first step to solving a problem is to air it and to get feedback on it.”

The next step, apparently, is to keep doing whatever you’d been doing, only with more people doing it. After 18 months, that’s produced little in the way of quantifiable improvement, which can be attributed in part to the pandemic and in part to a lack of vision.

DHHS was a pile of rubble when Mills took office. It still is, albeit, a slightly larger one. That works for Confederate statues. Not so much for helping people.

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9 Responses »

  1. Al, Fixing DHHS isn't an administrative problem, it's a legislative one. There has always been problems with DHHS, there always will be problems with it, that is just how it works, they are unavoidable. However, the real problems started under Gov. King, he pressed for massive changes within DHHS and most for the worse. Under McKernan DHHS had some really tough laws and rules it had to follow, McKernan really knew how to leverage the dem controlled house and senate to get things motivated. And then along comes King with the dems still in control of the house and senate, that DHHS began its real decline, McKernan was a try to do right by everybody type of governor, King was a wants to be liked by everybody type of governor, whe with the backin of the still dem controlled house and senate rolled back the tough DHHS rules and laws that McKernan had established, King made it so, children had to be court ordered to be taken from the home, McKernan had it so it was, take the kid from the home and make the parents prove they should have the child back, but now it is leave the kid in the home and prove the parents deserve to lose the child, LePage even tried to get that law overturned, Mills refused to press the issue, so we had a few child deaths on the books because of it. King and Baldacci, Baldacci btw had the trifecta, dem governor, house and senate, and he like King wanted to be liked by everybody so some more rules and laws governing DHHS got lessened, then all you needed to get benefits was a half-assed sob story and you got them, there were even programs to buy people cars. And the shear amount of programs and agencies needed to be trimmed, there were 75 DHHS based agencies in Franklin county alone, it was like the dems have never heard of consolidation, elderly housing and elderly care, why did those need to be separate? Child medical benefits and child mental health benefits, again two more separate things that could easily be done at the same place and by the same worker. Work related programs, need to look for work, go see this person at this address, need a resume class, go see this person at this other address. Oh, what's that, your last name starts with O, you need to go see this person at this address, we only handle people with A-N last names, we had people from Franklin county who used to have to go to Oxford county, because DHHS was so spread out across the landscape. LePage tried to fix that, but house dems wanted nothing to do with it. Until finally Com. Mayhew just said to hell with it and quit trying to make it work because the dems weren't even trying to make it work. Mills is doing no better she only managed to hire even more people, expanded even more programs and the system is so broken it will never be fixed. Better to just scrap the entire DHHS system and start over.

  2. thank you Al for pointing out that Gov Paul LePage was on the right track, as he usually is.

    My home state of Maine has suffered greatly at the hands of the Democratic Party majority.
    It takes a tiger like LePage to face them down.
    This is why they hate him.
    He is a great man and will be a great Governor,,,again!!
    I love that!!

    Whoever you vote for,, make sure it's NOT a Democrat, unless you want to be TAXED out of everything you work for.
    And have it all given to retired teachers and state workers cushy retirement funds.
    Break all that up so the rest of us can survive.
    Paul will fight for the rest of us.
    I want a statue of him in the middle of Portland after his next term as Governor.

    Everything Is Beautiful.

  3. Maybe Al should be given a bus ticket to Portland. He would be more appreciated there.

  4. LePage was the worst governor we ever had. I blame him for cutting of my close friend's medicaid (and he was 62}. He used to have coverage but greedy LePage cut it so he could brag about what a "genius" he was by killing people through lack of insurance. My friend died. Those who loved LePage should join the Nazi party because you would fit right in with them. Janet Mills is a lot smarter than LePage ever will be

  5. frump,,
    Then charge Lepage with murder if you think he caused a death.

    Other than that I only have one thing to say to you,,

  6. frumpleton, why was he on medicaid?

  7. If Lepage were still governor, we would be in the same boat as AZ, TX, FL re. the spike in Covid19 cases and deaths. All led by Trump sycophant governors just as LePage was. Mills and her crew have handled the pandemic very well and Maine may be able to open and stay open while those other states are closing down. At least he had the brains to get out of FL for the summer. But I hope he goes back when it is safe down there. Once the bars reopen so he can get a job that he is truly qualified for. Not bartender, bouncer!

  8. Slipstream read my comment on the college reopening. If you think Mills is doing a good job you aren’t paying attention. Reopening colleges to people from across the globe is going to get us exactly what you are blaming Republican governors of doing in other states.

  9. Good to see the partisan divide bringing great answers to a big problem---bring back a demagogue for governor; spend some more money with little thought of where it comes from. What happened to the time when Maine governors and legislators could sit at the table and find solutions? You might say, if you're a pesimist that the time I speak of never existed; I'll say Read History. In so many ways, for a small sparsely populated state, we've solved more problems and moved farther forward than many other larger, richer states. And that was because? People worked together and swallowed their selfish pride and recognized that they might learn something by discussion. Whoever God might be, I'm hoping, by God's grace, that we come around to that place once again or else, looks like rubble all over the place + many more bodies lying around which means less population to argue with. Sad kind of prediction, isn't it?