March 15, 2012

Plan to streamline social services unveiled

Officials say the DHHS is overdue for a restructuring to improve the delivery of services and efficiency.

AUGUSTA — Mainers who need social services may get them in a more coordinated and seamless way, with more emphasis on their long-term and overall needs, if a plan introduced Wednesday to restructure the state's social-services agency wins lawmakers' approval.

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Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at a news conference announcing Gov. Paul LePage's plans to restructure the department on Wednesday.

AP/Joe Phelan

The bill to be submitted by Gov. Paul LePage also aims to eliminate duplication and streamline services in the Department of Health and Human Services. Although it's expected to save some money and eliminate nearly 50 jobs, that isn't the point of the bill, said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

"The goals of restructuring are to focus more resources on the consumer, to improve front-line resources and better integrate services over the age span and across many layers of care," Mayhew said.

Officials said the proposal culminates several months of planning and has nothing to do with a recently discovered computer glitch that allowed as many as 19,000 people to receive Medicaid services for which they weren't eligible.

The sprawling department, which provides multiple federal-state services and programs to people of all ages, would consolidate its five programs into three to reduce administration and improve efficiency. The plan calls for eliminating 91 positions and creating 44, for a net loss of 47 positions, some of which are vacant now and others that would be moved to private agencies.

Savings are projected in the $500,000 range, but Mayhew said that number could change. She said no office closures are proposed.

A member of the committee that oversees the DHHS, Rep. Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, was not sold on the Republican governor's proposal, especially given the limited time left to review it. The legislative session is scheduled to end April 18.

"What we don't want to see is the brain-drain that led to significant computer problems in DHHS that's called into question the competence of the department," said Eves.

The current structure of the DHHS dates to 2004, when the departments of Human Services, and Behavioral and Development Services, were merged. Even after that consolidation, many of the services and programs remained in "silos," said Bonnie Smith, deputy commissioner for programs. That prompted a closer look at "how people fit into these neat compartments," said Smith.

It turns out that many DHHS clients are served by more than one of the department's offices, which serve the elderly, people with disabilities or mental health issues, people needing substance abuse treatment, and families and children.

Officials saw that many people with addiction also needed mental health services. The same connection was found between those receiving elder services and disability assistance.

"Instead of fitting into one, neat compartment, it's really much more complex," said Smith. "The need for integration became apparent."

The proposed reorganization also aims to improve the transition of young Mainers from children's services to adult services.

Too often, the state loses track of children when they approach the age of 18, and providers of adults' services are not told of their longer-term needs, said Smith. The reorganization would allow a more seamless transition, she said.

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