AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s de facto director of welfare programs was ousted from her job this week by Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Barbara Van Burgel, who led the state’s Office of Family Independence for several years, said she was given no notice or explanation for why she was let go.
“I realize that when you’re a director, you work at pleasure of the commissioner and if you don’t fit in, it’s going to be difficult to stay,” Van Burgel said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “But I wasn’t really told why I didn’t fit in. They just said the administration wanted a clean sweep and a chance to put their own leaders in place.”
Van Burgel was replaced by Dale Denno, a Portland attorney and a former assistant attorney general.
DHHS Spokesman John Martins said he could not comment on Van Burgel’s departure because it is a personnel matter.
Van Burgel said she even told her boss this summer that she would resign if she didn’t fit in with the new administration. Mayhew never accepted that resignation, Van Burgel said, leading her to believe her job was safe.
“In all honestly, I was fairly shocked,” she said. “There are always internal discussions and I don’t want to elaborate on those, but I never perceived myself as being on the other side of the administration. I tried to provide the pros and cons of whatever option was on the table.
“This is certainly not how I expected to end my career.”
In addition to spending more than six years as head of the Maine’s director of the Office of Family Independence, Van Burgel was a 28-year veteran of DHHS.
The Office of Family Independence was renamed from the Office of Integrated Access and Support after Gov. Paul LePage took office.
That office, a division of DHHS, is responsible for overseeing a host of social services programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program and general assistance programs at all Maine cities and towns.
LePage and Republican lawmakers have expressed interest in reforming many of the state’s welfare programs and that discussion is expected to resume in January when the Legislature reconvenes.
Asked whether she agreed with Gov. Paul LePage on welfare reform, Van Burgel said the term “welfare” is broad and, increasingly, filled with emotion.
She said the TANF program under her watch was well run and most recipients used the program for several months and then moved on. She acknowledged the steep increase in the number of Mainers collecting SNAP benefits, but Van Burgel said the jump coincided directly with the economic downturn.
She said the insistence of some policymakers to focus on fraud and abuse does not match the facts.
“In the public arena, stories are always more effective than facts,” she said. “Human nature is: you always remember the negative.”
Van Burgel is the latest in a string of DHHS employees that have been let go by the LePage administration.
Others have included: Don Chamberlain and Ron Welch, the heads of Adult Mental Health Services program, Diana Scully of the Elder Services program and Jane Gallivan of Adults with Cognitive and Physical Disabilities, Anthony Marple, head of MaineCare Services and James Beogher, director of the Child and Family Services program.
Former MaineCare medical director Dora Anne Mills was fired as well.