As a former Air Force pilot, I know the importance of redundancy in aircraft systems. When it comes to government programs, however, redundancy often means waste. Beginning in 2011, the 125th Legislature worked hard to reduce waste by streamlining procedures to better serve those most in need while reducing the burdens on Maine taxpayers.
I am pleased to say we accomplished a lot in the last two years. We reduced red tape, ferreted out corruption at the Maine Turnpike Authority and implemented welfare reform. By limiting the scope of services, we are able to concentrate on the most vulnerable Maine residents.
This is a clear change of direction from just two years ago, when the state was increasing welfare spending and benefits. The policies of the past resulted in poor benefits for those who needed them and higher costs to Maine taxpayers. Continuing down this path of ever-expanding welfare programs was having the same effect as giving everyone a handicap sign for their car. If everyone has a handicap sticker, those who need the sticker the most will have to compete with everyone else for a place to park.
Of course, to read press accounts of our efforts to reform welfare by reducing enrollment and eliminating redundancies, you would think we made our decisions by throwing darts at a board. Let me assure you nothing could be further from the truth. We have made tough decisions when necessary and strived to streamline the delivery of benefits.
This effort to streamline services is particularly important when it comes to veterans. As a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, I wanted to make sure that those who served our country with honor are treated with dignity and respect by those they served. In choosing to serve in our military, veterans have demonstrated a strength of character that should earn them our help and support when they are in need.
Veterans account for 13.2 percent of Maine’s population, which is the fourth highest percentage in the country. Seven percent served recently in Iraq or Afghanistan. These veterans are our friends, neighbors and colleagues. It is important as we continue to streamline benefits that we work to prevent breaks in services to our veterans.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is working hard toward that end. Since beginning the implementation of our reforms, DHHS has identified 4,600 veterans who are receiving food supplements, MaineCare and/or TANF. Those veterans who will lose benefits due to policy changes have been contacted directly by the department and made aware of how to take advantage of similar programs through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Additionally, DHHS has reached out to veterans living in Bangor, Brewer, Lewiston and Auburn to make them aware of new VA facilities in those areas that they can fully use.
The next step for DHHS is to identify veterans using long-term care benefits. Once this work is complete, these veterans will be able to maximize their use of the programs provided by the VA. This effort ensures we are meeting our commitment to our veterans while simultaneously eliminating costly redundancies within our state welfare system.
DHHS must also be proactive when dealing with veterans, and they are now taking steps to identify new veterans as they apply for benefits.
DHHS, with permission from the veteran, can now refer them immediately to the VA. This referral will result in an assessment to determine a veteran’s need for benefits, helping to reduce the need for public assistance.
Finally, in our efforts to safeguard veterans, DHHS, through the General Assistance Working Group, is reviewing methods to identify veterans accessing the system so that they too can be referred to the VA.
If asked what comes to mind when one hears the name DHHS, my answer two years ago would have included words such as wasteful, mismanaged and redundant. Truthfully, that was an accurate assessment at the start of the 125th Legislature. The department is far from perfect, but we have taken great strides in bringing its unwieldy programs and large bureaucracy to heal. Most importantly, we have done it in a responsible way. We have protected our veterans who protected us. We have freed up money to support those who are truly in need by taking aim at those who have turned welfare into an entitled way of life.
I remain an advocate for veterans and will continue looking for new opportunities to reform state government.
State Rep. Doug Damon (R-Bangor), a first-term legislator, serves on the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.