Capitol Notebook: Candidates should be asked about DHHS

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Most of the talk in the current campaign for governor has been about guns, fire extinguishers stopping school shooters, fidelity to the Second Amendment, and how Maine should treat its immigrants.

But the most important question that should be asked of the candidates is: How exactly will you fix the mess that is the Department of Health and Human Services?

Just last weekend, relatives in New York State had to bury a 10-year-old girl from Maine, found beaten to death at a home in Stockton Springs. Her mother and stepfather have been charged in her death, and school officials in the town where she lived previously said they had reported her situation to DHHS.

This incident, which followed another in December where a 4-year-old girl died in Wiscasset in a home where she had been placed by DHHS, has focused attention on the continued failures of the behemoth department under the LePage administration.

Taking care of the disabled, along with abused children and others who cannot care for themselves, is the most important and most difficult function of state government. State government has to employ troopers, maintain infrastructure, and other jobs, but none is as important as caring for those who need help. And this is where the LePage administration leaves its worst legacy.

How to rectify that failure, and what a new administration would put in place as metrics to ensure DHHS is successful and learns from its failures, should be a central part of this gubernatorial debate.

But so far, it hasn’t been.

How would a new governor handle the investigation into the death of a child in state custody, or other department failures that come to light? Would he or she allow the department to hide behind a cloak of confidentiality? Is DHHS in fact too large a department to run effectively, and should it be subdivided into its parts?

The facts in these tragedies are still to be discovered, and it is doubtful that the current administration will share results of an investigation, or a plan to rectify any problems. Problems in various DHHS functions have drawn recent federal investigations and audits, including a withdrawal of federal funds for the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital. The common thread in these events is the continuing failure of the LePage administration to acknowledge and correct deficiencies.

The federal Office of the Inspector General issued a report in 2017 charging DHHS with failing to adequately report critical incidents involving the care of developmentally disabled adults on Medicaid. The feds charged that DHHS failed to investigate 133 deaths, and to properly report critical incidents from a period January 2013 to June 2015.

This occurred during the administration of former DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who left the post last May to run for governor.

On the campaign trail, Mayhew was asked about the report and deflected blame: “(The audit) is a reflection of prior administrations and years of explosive entitlement growth prioritizing able-bodied adults at the expense of the most vulnerable,” Mayhew told the Press Herald.

With the recent tragic deaths, attention is focused again on DHHS failures. But these problems have been documented before in reports provided to the Legislature by the DHHS ombudsman, Christine Alberi. She warned in 2017 that “multiple child abuse cases involved the failure to follow assessment policy, failure to follow safety planning policy, or failure to recognize risk to children in their parents’ care.”

The job of child protective workers, charged with deciding what to do in cases where a child may be at risk, is unimaginably difficult and often heartbreaking –they must decide whether to recommend removal of a child from a family. They are overworked, and daily face the problems of families whose lives are bound up in poverty and drug abuse.

But the failure of this administration to publicly acknowledge the problems that have plagued DHHS, and chart the solutions, has amplified these tragedies and made it harder to prevent the next one.

Voters should demand that the next governor do a better job.

Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.