AUGUSTA, Maine — After months of performance problems and scandals racked the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday lodged a full-throated defense of embattled Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
Democrats in recent months have accused Mayhew and LePage of mismanaging several DHHS programs and facilities, including Riverview Psychiatric Center, and a new transportation service that arranges rides for MaineCare patients to medical appointments.
Mayhew shook off the attacks, saying in a recent email: “My energies are focused on the day-to-day operations of a complex, $3.4 billion organization and service to the people of Maine. I will not spend any time or energy legitimizing unfounded and politically motivated statements with a response.”
During a roughly 40-minute, wide-ranging interview Thursday, LePage spent some time arguing on his health chief’s behalf.
“She is far more right than she is wrong,” he told reporters. “She is doing a tremendous, good service for the people of Maine, particularly the mentally ill, the elderly and the disabled. No one wants to help these people more than she does.”
LePage acknowledged that there had “been a lot of talk lately about incompetence in my administration.” The governor recognized that there had been problems on several fronts, but said he was confident in the state’s ability to right the ship, with Mayhew at the helm.
Coordinated Transportation Services, or CTS, was awarded contracts to dispatch drivers for MaineCare patients in six of eight state service regions. They began operating in August, and it wasn’t long before thousands of complaints of missed or delayed rides inundated state officials, legislators and advocates.
Later, lawmakers learned that CTS had not obtained a performance bond, a type of insurance that would have reimbursed the state for services not provided by the company if its contracts were revoked. The bond was a required part of the contract, and legislators chastised DHHS for not ensuring it was in place before contracting with CTS.
“I still have a concern with CTS, and I have expressed it,” LePage said. “One is that they weren’t able to get a performance bond. No. 2 is that they have six contracts, and for someone not to have a performance bond and have a majority of the contracts, that’s a concern.”
LePage said he didn’t believe all six of CTS’ contracts would be renewed when they expire next year, but said he was pleased with improvements that had been made in the level of service.
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, is a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. He said Friday that he and other lawmakers were not as optimistic about the company’s ability to provide reliable service, and that there’s an appetite among legislators to see the contract terminated.
“It’s an open question whether any of [the contracts with CTS] should be renewed,” he said. “And renewal is next year. There’s a lot of momentum in the Legislature to totally pull back and reconsider the whole thing.”
LePage also said the problems seen in the MaineCare transportation system result from problems with the state’s contracting agency, the Bureau of Government Services, not DHHS. The governor said problems in the request for proposal process that ultimately led to CTS receiving six contracts were to blame. The governor even went so far as to call it a “failed system.”
Efforts to have LePage or his staff clarify that argument on Friday were unsuccessful.
The governor also discussed controversies surrounding the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which lost $20 million in federal funding after an unannounced audit spurred by series of violent outbursts from patients. The federal government found Riverview to be understaffed and overcrowded, and took issue with the way Riverview handled violent patients.
Since then, the Legislature passed a bill that would send forensic patients to a new medical facility located within the Maine State Prison in Warren. But the federal government said numerous problems at Riverview persisted and revoked funding.
LePage said he thought the former system, in which forensic and civilian patients were kept in different quadrants of the same hospital, was a good fit for Maine, and said the federal government’s assessment of the situation was wrong.
“The program we had before was a good program. I think the federal government was dead wrong on this one,” he said. “But in order to salvage what we could of federal monies, we’re doing it their way. This is what happens when you become hostage to the person who writes the checks.”
LePage has used variations of that theme to argue against Medicaid expansion, not to apply for federal educational grants and contrast his leadership approach, based on a business background and small government perspective, with that of Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration and Democrats in Congress, including U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, LePage’s likely Democratic challenger in 2014.
Again, LePage said that in the end, having separate facilities for civilian patients and for those awaiting trial or already convicted of a crime will be a good answer, even if it’s not perfect.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she didn’t know why the governor had taken so long to address the public about the various problems at DHHS.
“The big picture is that it isn’t like these problems are one or two weeks old,” she said Friday. “CTS and the MaineCare rides alone have been lingering out here since Aug. 1.”
A week before LePage’s meeting with reporters, the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Analysis reported that leaders at the Maine Center for Disease Control had ordered employees to shred public documents.
LePage said the issue there was that “best practices were not identified or put into place.”
“We are working on it. We’re fixing it. It’s unfortunate that some people got hurt, and that’s a problem,” the governor said. He also added that there’s more to the story than has been disclosed, but that he is limited from divulging additional details.
“What has been published recently about the CDC, they don’t have all the facts, and some of it we can’t give you because it’s personnel matters,” he said. “But I will tell you what we’re doing is to make sure that Mary and Mary’s people are looking to implement the best practices.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.