Politics & Other Mistakes: Break it up

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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 crowd 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 the 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.

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.

Break up your thoughts into coherent sentences, and email them to [email protected].

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