April 15, 2012

Bill Nemitz: In Augusta, a look under the hood gets hot

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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.)

(Continued on page 2)

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