Brave woman, that Beth Ashcroft.
Sometime next month, the director of the Maine Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability (commonly called OPEGA) will lead her six-member staff into what is already a political wildfire — the never-ending computer catastrophe at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s hardly unusual for OPEGA — witness its 2011 report on the Maine Turnpike Authority that, as of Friday, put former turnpike Executive Director Paul Violette behind bars for the next three-plus years.
But with legislative elections right around the corner — and Democrats far and wide itching to make it a mid-term referendum on Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration — this is more than just another item on OPEGA’s ever-growing punch list of government operations in need of a look-see.
This, for many under the State House dome, is war.
“We are committed to providing the Legislature the most accurate, complete, objective view of everything we do,” a cheerful Ashcroft said in an interview Friday. “Some people are going to like what we come up with — and some people probably won’t.”
We’ll get back to that later. First, the task at hand.
OPEGA’s charge, unanimously approved late last week by the Legislature’s bipartisan Government Oversight Committee: Examine “apparent breakdowns in human communications” between the state’s executive and legislative branches over “weaknesses” in the DHHS’ dueling computer systems.
Specifically, the committee wants to know “who knew what and when within the management ranks of the Executive Branch regarding the fact that (two DHHS computer systems — one for eligibility, the other for claims processing) could not interface directly with each other.”
Lawmakers also want to know whether two key legislative committees (Health and Human Services, Appropriations and Financial Affairs) “were made aware of this problem and its financial impact prior to March 2012 and if not, why not.”
Catch the edginess in that last phrase?
It harkens back to late last year, when members of the Appropriations Committee scratched their heads and wondered why the numbers in a proposed DHHS supplemental budget for this fiscal year just didn’t seem to add up.
The more questions the legislators asked, the fewer answers they got — beyond DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s repeated assurances not to worry, her department’s figures were solid enough.
And when the Dems pushed back even harder, there was LePage himself appearing more than once in the committee’s hearing room, calling them “obstructionists” and demanding that they stop all the yapping and just “get it done.”
“It” eventually became the removal of some 14,000 people from MaineCare (Maine’s version of Medicaid) to balance the budget.
Only in March, well after the MaineCare cuts had been passed, did Mayhew reappear before the Appropriations Committee to announce that something was amiss, after all: Because her department’s two computer systems don’t communicate with each other, up to 19,000 Mainers continued to receive MaineCare benefits after they had been deemed ineligible.
What’s worse, Mayhew told the lawmakers she was aware of the problem back when they were crunching the numbers in January and that some managers in her department may have known about it as far back as June 2011.
“We should have raised to you the fact that a problem had been brought to our attention, that the issue existed,” an apologetic Mayhew said at the time.
(The “issue” still does exist — while the 19,000 ineligibles were deleted from the MaineCare rolls, at least another 5,300 have since slipped through the cracks between the two computers. Thus, all parties agreed last week that OPEGA’s investigation must not interfere with ongoing efforts to solve the DHHS software puzzle once and for all.)
So now, as OPEGA prepares to sift through the whole mess and report back sometime this summer, two distinct narratives compete for our attention.
The Democrats say the administration knew there was a problem all along and deliberately kept it from the Legislature so the MaineCare downsizing — high among LePage’s legislative priorities — could sail through unencumbered.
“We were lied to,” said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, a member of both the Appropriations and Government Oversight committees, in an interview Friday. “We think it’s some kind of cover-up.”
The Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the problem originated with Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, not LePage’s. Hence, they suggest, at least some of the blame for the current crisis lies with the Democrats.
Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, sits with Craven on the Government Oversight Committee, which determines OPEGA’s workload. Before anyone starts charging “cover-up,” Fossel said in a separate interview, OPEGA should first find out exactly what happened.
“Around here, what often happens is people draw conclusions and then they assemble the evidence underneath it,” Fossel said. “I find that obnoxious.”
That said, Fossel is well aware of the OPEGA investigation’s potential as a game changer in the looming legislative election — his reason for arguing that the final report should come “after the June primaries and long before November.”
If he were a Democratic challenger, Fossel said, “there are many (districts) in which I would not run against the individual (GOP) candidate. I would run against Gov. LePage. So you have to be careful of that.”
“If we allow (the Government Oversight Committee and OPEGA) to be used to advance anybody’s political cause, then it’s almost certainly going to be less useful in the future,” Fossel said.
It’s a good point — although you can already smell politics in last week’s unanimous vote by the 12-member Government Oversight Committee.
Had he not supported this investigation, Fossel noted, “it puts me in the position of saying, ‘Well, I’m trying to cover up what’s going on in Gov. LePage’s administration.’ “
“And I can’t do that,” he continued. “They have to defend themselves. I can defend them when they’re not being legitimately targeted — but if the target is legitimate, I have to have it go forward.”
Which brings us back to Ashcroft and an OPEGA staff already up to its neck in a review of Child Development Services, a Department of Corrections cost-per-prisoner analysis, two investigations of the Maine State Housing Authority, and assessment of the state’s Office of Information Technology …
“We really try to stay grounded in our process so that whatever we’re reviewing, we know that it’s the objective view of it,” Ashcroft said. “And then what gets done with it from there, we really can’t control.”
Maybe that’s why OPEGA’s modest office sits not inside the State House, but on the bottom floor of the adjacent Cross State Office Building.
It’s the closest they can get to a political fallout shelter.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org