Breaking up is hard to do

 Politics + Other Mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  September 12, 2013

You may have seen these headlines, but you might not have made the connection.

“Assaults increase at state mental hospital” (Lewiston Sun Journal, August 29).

“Riverview solution elusive” (Lewiston Sun Journal, August 28).

“Maine’s safety net is frayed” (Maine Sunday Telegram, August 11).

“Space aliens use food stamps to buy Twinkies, whiskey, Zumba classes” (this one may be fictional, since legitimate Zumba instructors probably don’t accept food stamps).

“Rides go wrong for poor” (Portland Press Herald, August 8).

“Why can’t Maine eliminate wait for elderly, disabled aid?” (Bangor Daily News, June 15).

“Oversight of Maine restaurants diminished, just as complaints rise” (Maine Sunday Telegram, May 19).

“Workers: ‘reign of terror’ at CDC” (Lewiston Sun Journal, April 21).

“Maine official says she was told to destroy documents” (Lewiston Sun Journal, April 3).

“Third generation of Bigfoot family gets welfare checks” (I think I saw this in the Weekly World News before it folded).

“Poor planning adds to foster care crisis” (Maine Sunday Telegram, March 24).

“Cutting off patients with special needs” (Portland Press Herald, February 1).

“Advocates question plan to fund care of mentally disabled” (Morning Sentinel, January 31).

What all these stories (except, possibly, the ones about space aliens and Bigfoot) have in common is they reported on problems at the state Department of Health and Human Services. Overspending. Under-spending. Spending that nobody seems to have kept track of. Lack of supervision. Too much supervision. Supervision that would have been adequate if it hadn’t been so incompetent. New rules. Old rules. Rule changes that are impossible to figure out. In other words, business as usual at DHHS.

It would be simple to place blame for this mess on top administrators (many of whom are certified knotheads), but it wouldn’t be entirely fair. For one thing, those space aliens wouldn’t have been approved for food stamps by an agency dealing with human services. They’d have been referred to the Department of Inhuman Services, also known as the Department of Environmental Protection. So long as the visitors from a distant galaxy hired a lobbyist who was tight with DEP commissioner Patricia Aho, they’d have no problem being approved for welfare, sleepovers at the Blaine House, and a permit allowing them to drain Moosehead Lake.

At DHHS, the situation would have been a whole lot more complicated.

There’s a reason the department is facing a federal cutoff of funding for the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, an investigation into why the program that’s supposed to give low-income people rides to medical appointments isn’t functioning properly, constant rounds of multi-million-dollar budget shortfalls, allegations it ordered health-program data shredded for political reasons, long waiting lists for services, as well as complaints about its failure to help everybody from foster parents to hospitals to schools to the guy who services flying saucers (oh wait, he got paid — even though UFO repair isn’t eligible for reimbursement under DHHS regulations).

That reason is not necessarily because the folks in charge of DHHS aren’t qualified. It’s probably not because they’re disengaged. It isn’t even because they don’t care.

It’s because the job is impossible.

The department is too big for any human being to manage, and as for nonhumans, they’re much too busy eating junk food, getting drunk, and partaking of the pleasures of . . . um . . . vigorous physical exercise to bother with administering a bewildering bureaucracy consisting of 3100 employees and one-quarter of the entire state budget.

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  Topics: The Editorial Page , Paul Lepage, DHHS
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