Indestructible machine

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services
By AL DIAMON  |  December 21, 2011

The weird thing about the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is not that it wastes enormous amounts of taxpayer money. It's that it doesn't have any fun doing it.

When other public agencies get caught squandering dollars, they can at least point to all the wretched excess they enabled themselves to indulge in. Former Maine Turnpike Authority executive director Paul Violette stayed in luxurious hotels, traveled in limos, relaxed in a sauna. Soon-to-be-ex Maine Municipal Bond Bank honcho Robert Lenna spent a small fortune dining with Wall Street bankers, because, as he infamously informed his critics, "I don't eat at Wendy's." Even the welfare cheats that Republican Governor Paul LePage insists are robbing the treasury blind are alleged to be cashing in their undeserved benefits for beer, smokes, and HD televisions.

It's not as if Health and Human Services hasn't run up debts sufficient to cover a month or two of reckless gambling in Vegas or a Caribbean vacation in a secluded hideaway stocked with top-shelf liquor and swimsuit models. The most recent figures show the department is bleeding red ink to the tune of $123 million. That's a lot of shopping sprees, ski-slope condos, and personal medical attention of the sort that would have made Michael Jackson envious. Or dead.

And yet, nobody at DHHS seems to be enjoying themselves.

I have a theory to explain this utter lack of hedonism. I believe that, in spite of its name, there's nothing human about Human Services. It's really a giant robot, sustained by hordes of badly programmed mini-bots commanded by Commissioner Mary Mayhew, herself a product of cyborg engineering.

How else do you think she can shoot laser beams from her eyes?

Mayhew's department isn't the largest in state government (that honor goes to the Department of Education), but it is the most sprawling, with responsibilities ranging from operating psychiatric hospitals to administering food-stamp programs to dealing with abusive parents to annoying right-wing fanatics. No single person — not even one with an android heritage — could possibly keep track of what's going on. And, more importantly, what's not.

Since taking office a year ago, the LePage administration has fired a number of the department's top administrators. That wasn't necessarily a bad move, since many of these entrenched bureaucrats were little more than automatons, intent on defending the status quo. On the other hand, they were also the only staffers with any clue as to how things worked. Removing them left the machine in charge of itself.

Sort of like a Transformers movie. Only with a bigger budget.

There's some truth to LePage's charge that years of Democratic dominance in Augusta allowed DHHS — and in particular, the Medicaid program called MaineCare — to expand beyond the state's ability to pay for it. The governor called that growth "irresponsible and short-sighted."

There's also some basis for the Democrats' claim that the GOP has been setting MaineCare up to fail by making unreasonable assumptions about revenue and savings. House Minority Leader Emily Cain told the MaineToday Media papers that Mayhew and LePage were "so focused on the numbers they haven't spent as much time on the people and human impact."

But both sides are missing the point. DHHS isn't ungovernable because of ideology. Instead, it's become — through mergers, indifference, incompetence, and inertia — the exact opposite of a giant financial institution.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Paul Violette, Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Mary Mayhew,  More more >
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