December 6, 2013

Our View: DHHS chief’s speech failed to cover agency mistakes

Mary Mayhew should have announced plans to fix a broken ride system and a botched Portland office relocation process.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew made a campaign-style visit to Portland this week, touting the LePage administration’s welfare reform agenda, which she says will make her department more efficient when taking care of the state’s neediest residents.

click image to enlarge

Mary Mayhew, Maine Department of Health and Human Services commissioner, touted the LePage administration’s welfare reform agenda at the Portland Regional Chamber’s Eggs & Issues breakfast Wednesday.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Not surprisingly, Mayhew didn’t look back at some of her agency’s recent slips, which leave the neediest in the lurch and cost the state more. These are errors, not political choices. They have been management failures within the department for which no one in the administration is willing to accept responsibility.

The state’s decision to outsource the system for taking MaineCare patients to medical appointments has been an expensive failure. The decision to move the Portland DHHS office from a place that is in easy walking distance to a bus hub, multiple social service agencies and a third of its clientele to a remote location in South Portland will create an unnecessary hurdle for needy people who need help holding on to their housing and finding a job.

Both of these problems show bad planning and poor communication. Mayhew, who took the reins of the biggest agency in state government after a career in public relations, can’t blame these errors on the previous administration or greedy welfare recipients. These are unforced errors that will hurt the very people the department is supposed to help.

The botched ride system has resulted in thousands of missed medical appointments, interrupting patients’ chemotherapy and dialysis treatments while creating havoc in providers’ schedules. In its first three months of operation, the service cost state taxpayers $426,000 more than Maine spent for a functional system a year ago.

The DHHS paid $28 million to Coordinated Transportation Solutions to broker rides for a large part of the state. When the department threatened to pull the company’s performance bond so Maine could recoup some of its wasted money, it found that there was no such thing. Maine had awarded the contract without making sure that the company did what was required of it.

The decision to move the Portland DHHS office and combine it with the local office of the Department of Labor makes sense, but where it’s going does not. Moving the office to South Portland will not be less expensive than an urban alternative, but it will interfere with the delivery of services. This could have been prevented with some timely negotiations with the city before issuing a request for proposals.

Mayhew said Wednesday in a radio interview before her speech that the state needed a building with more than 400 parking places. Instead of partnering with the city to ensure there would be parking near a potential in-town site, she went ahead with a process preordained to favor a suburban location.

This showed a lack of foresight and a lack of sensitivity toward the people the state is bound to serve. Now that the problem has been exposed, the state is compounding the error by refusing to correct its mistake. Instead, the administration is offering to create a ride service for DHHS clients. Maybe the state should fix the broken ride service it already has before offering to start a new one.

Mayhew stuck with the campaign talking points Wednesday, promising reforms she says will preserve services for the people who need them most. But those people are getting hurt by the way the department is operating right now.

It’s Mayhew’s job to make sure that the state’s scarce resources are used to fulfill the department’s mission. Her next speech should explain why that’s not happening.

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