The Universal Notebook: Suffering LePage

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In her Capitol Notebook column last week, Marian McCue made a compelling case that the ongoing problems at the Department of Health and Human Services under Gov. Paul LePage should be a key issue in the gubernatorial campaign.

I agree if for no other reason than that former DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who helped create the problems, is one of the Republican hopefuls.

No thank you. Maine does not need LePage III. Maine people have suffered long enough under LePage and anti-government officials who measure success not by services rendered and suffering relieved, but by budgets cut and tax dollars saved.

The LePage-Mayhew failures, as McCue pointed out, include losing federal funding for the state psychiatric hospital and being charged by federal officials with failing to investigate the deaths of 133 disabled adults under state supervision.

LePage’s record of failures came to a head recently with the beating death of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy in Stockton Springs. Where was DHHS? Where was Child Protective Services?

“What’s not helpful is the blaming or pointing of fingers,” DHHS commissioner Ricker Hamilton said, refusing to answer any questions about the case. “It’s understandable. A child is dead. Someone took this child’s life is what’s alleged. So I understand that. But let’s gather together and work together and improve the system.”

The first person to point fingers, however, was Hamilton’s boss. The governor blamed DHHS, law enforcement and school officials for failing to protect Marissa Kennedy.

“Everybody here messed it up,” said LePage, pointing fingers at everyone except himself.

Improving the system, however, will require a change of administration and a change of mindset. LePage is one of the virulent new strain of Republican who believes government is the problem and people should be left to fend for themselves. As such, he presided over the gutting of several state agencies that deal with Maine’s most vulnerable citizens – children, immigrants, the elderly, the poor, the mentally ill, the incarcerated and the unemployed.

In the case of children, the rate of children living in deep poverty, defined as family incomes below 50 percent of the poverty level, has increased in Maine under LePage faster than in any other state in the nation. And at the very time children need help the most, the LePage administration has imposed time limits on temporary assistance to needy families that has left tens of thousands of Maine kids without help.

LePage has also single-handedly kept some 70,000 Mainers from getting health insurance because, despite the fact that Maine citizens voted to expand Medicaid (MaineCare), the governor thinks it’s too expensive.

LePage seems to view all forms of public assistance to those in need as unwarranted welfare. That’s why he and his Republican cronies imposed work requirements on those who receive food stamps and Medicaid. In fact, the vast majority (80 percent) of non-disabled Medicaid recipients are already employed, and those that don’t work are often sick, retired, in school or caring for a family.

But work requirements do not result in the unemployed getting jobs, but they do thrill the puritanical souls of conservatives like LePage and Mayhew. Since 2011, some 100,000 Maine people have lost assistance obtaining food, shelter and medical care, a record LePage is proud of and Mayhew is running on.

Such poverty leads to hopelessness and despair, which can manifest itself in domestic violence and child abuse. Reports of suspected child abuse have increased by 31 percent since 2008, yet the number of Child Protective Services caseworkers has not increased at all, leading to average caseloads jumping from 55 in 2011 to 73 in 2016.

Were the failures to adequately protect children just isolated incidents we might blame bureaucratic bungling, but indifference to human suffering has become a hallmark of LePage’s reign.

We have, for instance, Maine’s tragic opioid crisis: 418 overdose deaths in 2017 while LePage personally stood in the way of making the lifesaving Narcan antidote drug more widely available. LePage is on record as saying the antidote just keeps addicts alive, as though that were somehow undesirable.

Not surprisingly, a 2017 review found the Long Creek youth center in South Portland understaffed and ill-equipped to treat juvenile offenders. LePage seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation.

Most recently, LePage’s Department of Labor has come under fire for bungling the distribution of unemployment benefits and then trying to cover it up. Throw the bums a dime, right?

All this suffering under LePage is the result of an aberrant political philosophy that blames the victim and punishes the weak and vulnerable. To ask for help is to fail. To be asked to share is unfair. How long this indifference to human suffering continues will depend entirely on how we vote in November.

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