Despite protest of ‘a terrible bill,’ Senate gives initial approval to DHHS restructuring plan

By Eric Russell, BDN Staff
Posted April 11, 2012, at 12:58 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — On the same day lawmakers authorized an investigation of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Maine House and Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would restructure the department.

Many Senate Democrats protested — one even called it “a terrible bill” — but it still passed after considerable debate on Tuesday. It then went to the House late Tuesday for more debate and passed in a 75-67 vote along party lines.

The bill still requires additional votes in both chambers but appears headed for passage, given Republican majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Gov. Paul LePage and his administration introduced the bill last month as part of an effort to streamline state government’s largest agency. LD 1887 consolidates four DHHS offices into two and reorganizes another, resulting in a net loss of 15 positions, many of which are vacant at the moment.

The plan was crafted over a period of several months dating back to last year, but it was not designed to address budget woes, at least not directly. The initial savings are projected at only about $750,000 out of a more than $900 million total annual budget.

However, the shifting of resources from middle management to front-line services could make it easier to navigate DHHS’s web of various services. That could ultimately save money down the road.

The proposal seeks to merge the Offices of Substance Abuse and Adult Mental Health Services and combine the Offices of Elder Services and Cognitive and Physical Disabilities Services.

The Office of Child and Family Services would reorganize and link together its four major service areas, including child welfare and behavioral health.

The Office of MaineCare Services and the Office of Family Independence, which oversees food stamp and child support programs, were not targeted under the restructuring.

If finally approved by the Legislature, the bill would mark the first substantial overhaul of DHHS since it formed in 2004 through a merger of the Department of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services.

But for a plan that took so long to craft, some lawmakers wondered why they haven’t had more time to go through the details of the 50-page bill.

“The work we have in front of us is incomplete; this is not ready for prime time,” Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said Tuesday.

Added Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono: “It’s a rush job once again.”

Republicans disagreed.

Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew spent months visiting communities across the state and listening to Mainers.

Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, added that the plan seems to be a continuation of ongoing efforts to improve DHHS.

Some Democrats and advocacy groups, however, have been critical of LePage and Mayhew for getting rid of a number of high-level DHHS managers, which they say has contributed to problems within that department.

The restructuring plan passed late last month 9-3 in the Health and Human Services Committee.

One sticking point for some lawmakers was privatizing some services for the state’s most mentally ill residents.

The original bill called for the elimination of 33 “intensive case managers” who work with severely mentally ill and potentially dangerous residents and shifting those services to the private sector.

The committee voted to keep intensive case management services in-house for prison and county jail inmates and then contract out the rest.

DHHS has been in the spotlight for much of the 125th Legislature’s second session.

In February, the House and Senate voted on a much-debated supplemental budget package that addressed a $120 million shortfall within the department for the rest of the 2012 fiscal year.

Lawmakers still need to address a roughly $85 million shortfall at DHHS looming in the next fiscal year.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/11/politics/despite-protest-of-a-terrible-bill-senate-gives-initial-approval-to-dhhs-restructuring-plan/ printed on December 18, 2014