I won’t be writing a column this week.
Not because I’m ill.
Not because I’ve been suspended for making inappropriate comments.
And not because there’s nothing going on in Maine politics worth ridiculing.
The reason I’m taking a sabbatical is the result of studying the management philosophy at the state Department of Health and Human Services. Which can be summarized as follows:
If we don’t feel like doing our jobs, we just don’t. But we get paid anyway.
In other words, the department’s leaders behave like a passive-aggressive 12-year-old with a Pokémon Go obsession and a Quaalude habit.
Consider these examples.
According to excellent reporting by the Bangor Daily News, DHHS has decided it doesn’t need the $1 million it’s been receiving annually under a five-year federal grant for a program helping teenagers and young adults with serious mental illness prepare to live independently.
After two years of accepting the money, the department abruptly announced it would no longer do so, because, according to a press release from spokeswoman Samantha Edwards, “[W]e cannot create a dependency on funding that could be gone tomorrow based on federal decisions.” Instead, Edwards said, some sort of replacement would be financed with state money from an unspecified source.
It’s surprising the department has an extra million bucks lying around, since as recently as June, Paul LePage, Republican governor and genetically modified pumpkin virus, instituted a hiring freeze at DHHS, claiming there wasn’t enough cash to pay for new programs approved by the Legislature.
Oh wait, maybe LePage and DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew plan to use savings from turning the ASPIRE program, which helps welfare recipients get jobs, over to a private operator. Having a New York nonprofit handle that task should result in savings.
Except it doesn’t. ASPIRE currently costs the state about $63 million a year (in both state and those notoriously unreliable federal funds), and that’s how much the contractor will be paid. The sole advantage is DHHS won’t have to do any heavy lifting.
Nor is that the only case of the department deciding it’s no longer going to break a sweat. According to the Bangor Daily, DHHS has increased the number of requests for proposals to privatize services from an average of 30 to 35 each year to 100 to 125. And the department didn’t even bother to seek competitive bids before a program to help at-risk parents care for their new babies was sloughed off on a politically connected nonprofit called Maine Children’s Trust to the tune of over $9 million annually.
Net savings for taxpayers?
Uh … none.
But who needs extra money. LePage and Mayhew say they’ve found between $3 million and $5 million in DHHS’s current budget to build a 21-bed facility next to Augusta’s Riverview Psychiatric Center to house patients with mental illness who’ve committed violent crimes, about which they refuse to answer questions. Running such a secretive operation would be a drag, so the department plans to farm that task out to a private company, too.
Hiring public health nurses would be an even bigger bore, but Mayhew and LePage don’t bother. The Bangor newspaper’s investigation found that nearly half the nursing positions at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention are vacant, a number that’s been steadily increasing over the past six years. That’s saving some serious dough, at least until the next outbreak of tuberculosis or influenza.
Speaking of the CDC, it hasn’t had a director since May, and, according to Mayhew, won’t have one until after the state elects a new governor in 2018. In the meantime, a couple of underlings are running the show. Fortunately, the unspent money covered the cost of fines imposed on DHHS for serious safety violations at its Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta.
The department seems to have learned nothing from its 2013 decision to turn over coordination of a program providing transportation for Medicaid recipients to medical appointments to a private company. That produced hundreds of complaints and cost an extra $5.4 million.
On the plus side, it made being on welfare even less attractive.
There’s probably a provocative column to be written about all that. But not by me.