FARMINGTON — Maine is failing its residents who live in poverty by not expanding Medicaid or investing in public health, putting up barriers to assistance and not always taking advantage of federal dollars that can be used to help the needy, a former state official said at a recent talk at the University of Maine at Farmington.

“I think the current administration has really weakened the public health sector in the state, really understaffed it,” said Kevin Concannon, former commissioner of the Maine Department of Human Services under the Angus King administration and the Maine Department of Mental Health and Corrections under the Joseph Brennan administration. “Putting dollars into public health is one of the best ways we can deal with rising health care costs, to say nothing about the life of people who live in the jurisdiction.

“I’ve regretted to see, even from afar, Maine’s atrophying of its public system of care, whether it’s public health, mental health or care for people with developmental disabilities.”

Concannon, who is also a former U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary and who served in similar positions in Oregon and Iowa, spoke to an audience of about 40 people last week at UMF’s Mantor Library.

Public health was a major topic of his discussion, and he emphasized the importance of Medicaid in providing health care for the poor and people with disabilities. In the past, he said, Maine used to be a state that would ask, “What else can be done?” in terms of access to health care.

Recently, though, he said, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has tried consciously to do less. “While they would protest otherwise, (the current administration) has done little to really mitigate or avail itself of the opportunities provided to the state (by the federal government),” Concannon said.

According to the state, however, Maine’s poverty rate of 11.1 percent in 2017 is the lowest it’s been since 2005. About 33,000 children were living in poverty in Maine in 2017, a decrease of about 12 percent from 2003 levels.

“Governor LePage’s priority has always been to move Mainers from poverty to prosperity,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “He personally experienced the roles of education and work in making that happen. Unfortunately, the recent remarks played on stereotypes of reform and lacked the real data that our agencies have provided.

“The tremendous reduction in poverty and especially children in poverty is evidenced by both DHHS and Department of Labor data; that is a significant change over the past 8 years. Maine not only recovered from the recession, but has set a record number of private sector jobs, creating the opportunities for so many more people who had barriers to employment to become meaningfully employed.”

Much of Concannon’s talk focused on Medicaid, Maine’s expansion of which LePage and former Maine DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew have opposed ardently. Mayhew was appointed recently to head up the program federally after playing a role in eliminating nearly 70,000 people from the state’s program.

“We recently sent someone off to D.C. on the Medicaid side who I’m afraid is going to mirror that same philosophy nationally,” Concannon said. “I’ve seen the importance of Medicaid around the country. It’s one of the most important things we can do in the lives of people.”

Maine DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer, in an email, said it has been a priority of the LePage administration to “improve and reform the state’s health care system so Mainers are efficiently and effectively served.”

“It is clear from his remarks that Mr. Concannon is favorable to a system resembling socialized medicine, and so it is understandable that he may not appreciate many of our reforms.”

She also emphasized that the state has valued public-private partnerships when it comes to solving public health problems, such as the Opioid Health Homes program, which provides substance-use recovery services to the Medicaid population and the uninsured; and programs through Maine Prevention Services that work to prevent obesity and the use of tobacco and other harmful substances.

Concannon also talked about the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or SNAP, as being instrumental to addressing the needs of people across the country during the economic recession of 2008 and the years that followed.

At the same time, he criticized Maine for encouraging the inclusion of photo identification on EBT cards, something Concannon said other states had tried in the past and found it had no effect on cutting down on abuse of the program.

“It’s just one more burden for people to have to overcome,” he said.

“Maine introduced the option of the inclusion of a photo on EBT cards with the goal of reducing the incidence of EBT card trafficking,” Spencer said, adding that the state also has found there has been no indication the voluntary photo option has deterred people from participating in SNAP.

“Prior to the LePage administration, there was no focus on rooting out fraud within the welfare system,” she said. “We have worked hard to actively seek out those who chose to abuse the system, ensuring that these resources are going to those who are truly in need.”

In 2017, Maine also tried to require photo identification for its Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program, which distributes supplemental foods, education and health care referrals to women and children.

When the federal government pushed back, Concannon said Maine responded by suspending a SNAP education program. “There’s no relationship between that and the WIC program,” Concannon said. “It was just a way of saying to the federal government, ‘We’re going to poke back. We don’t like your decision.’ I fear now we’ll see variations of that in the Medicaid program as it moves forward.”

Finally, Concannon also said that under the LePage administration, the state passed up millions of dollars that were available under SNAP for job training in Maine.

“‘These people don’t need training. They need to get up in the morning,'” Concannon said, describing the attitude he said the USDA encountered from Maine officials around the year 2015. “What a terrible attitude. I promoted (the SNAP Employment & Training) program. A lot of people in this economy, many of them don’t have the skill set that is required.”

Over the last two years, though, Spencer said, Maine has launched a robust effort under the Employment and Training program and now has two contracts in place for work experience and job training.

The Maine Department of Labor also has worked with employers to provide federal tax credits to those who hire from specific groups of people who traditionally face barriers to employment, LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said in an email. She said the tax credit program, called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, helped move more than 10,000 people who were receiving welfare benefits to employment from 2014 to 2016.

One area where Maine has done a good job in dealing with poverty is its school nutrition program, Concannon said.

“I think it’s because they fly under the radar, the school meals people,” he said. “They’ve done a great job.”

Nationally, Concannon said, school lunch programs are as important as SNAP in making a difference in the lives of the poor, and especially children living in poverty.

“We need to make sure we’re doing all we can to educate kids about properly eating,” he said. “Schools are not the whole answer, but they’re part of the answer.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm