The Universal Notebook: Denial of Health and Human Services

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Last March, I devoted a column to the war on the poor being waged by Gov. Paul LePage and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. A year later, the war continues.

At this point, DHHS should change its name to Denial of Health and Human Services, for that is what LePage and Mayhew are doing.

A year ago, I pointed out that LePage’s major offense was refusing federal funds to expand Medicaid. The clock is still ticking on that one. A counter on the Cover Maine Now website has the number at more than $746.5 million as I write this. That’s 69,000 Mainers who are without health insurance simply because the LePage administration has a political objection to Obamacare.

Under LePage and Mayhew, more than half the families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families have been cut from the program, and that’s not because they no longer need the assistance. Over the past five years, the percentage of children living in extreme poverty has increased by 50 percent. While food insecurity has decreased in most other states, it has increased more than 10 percent in Maine. The percentage of uninsured Maine children has risen from 4 percent to 6 percent in the past two years. And Maine is the only state in the country that has not increased the percentage of people with health coverage since the Affordable Care Act was passed.

That is not a record anyone in Maine should be proud of, but LePage and Mayhew apparently are.

LePage’s refusal to take hundreds of millions of federal dollars to insure tens of thousands of Maine people hurts not only those left uninsured, but it hurts hospitals, too. Funding the ACA was in part predicated on cutting Medicare payments to health-care providers with the promise that they would make up the lost revenue with more Medicaid-insured patients seeking health care. But Maine hospitals lost Medicare revenues without gaining Medicaid patients.

And the efforts of LePage and Mayhew to deny health and human services to Maine people continues.

Last June, for example, the state cancelled its contract with Maine Consumers for Affordable Health Care to provide ombudsman services, helping those in need navigate the health-care system. An ombudsman is required by state and federal law and did not cost Maine taxpayers anything, because it was funded by a combination of federal funds and private grants. A classic case of putting politics before people.

Currently, LePage and Mayhew are pushing the governor’s bill, LD 1631, which would require citizens taking part in the Parents as Scholars program to satisfy new work requirements or face the loss of child support and transportation services. Democrats fortunately managed to scuttle another of the governor’s draconian bills, LD 1652, which would have denied school funding, general assistance and revenue sharing to cities and towns that fail to report immigrant status to the feds.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary scolded the LePage administration for cutting more than 12,000 Mainers from the food stamp program without helping them to find jobs or learn marketable skills. And that came on the heels of federal complaints that Maine’s DHHS takes longer to process food stamp applications than any state in the nation.

“What this administration has been doing,” said James Myall, a policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy, “is taking down the scaffolding that helps people climb out of poverty. They have just denied assistance, not improved people’s economic situation.”

“The culture at DHHS has changed in a dramatic way,” said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners. “All too often we hear from people who are having a hard time accessing help. The nasty rhetoric about welfare cheats has created a culture of disrespect and stigma, of demonizing people who need to turn to public assistance for help. It was already hard having to ask for help and this only makes it harder.”

Please God, we will be rid of LePage and Mayhew in a few years, but the culture of condemnation and shame they have infected the DHHS with may outlive them like systemic virus.

“Even if we are able to get different leadership,” asked Emily Brostek, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, “how long is it going to take to put back the culture of coverage, of trying to help people?”

In the world according to LePage and Mayhew, poverty is failure and asking for help is a sin. Their approach to helping those in need is akin to throwing children into water over their head to force them to sink or swim. And tossing them a lifesaver won’t teach them to swim. It’s not effective, just cruel.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.