Reports of plagiarism have supporters of consultant Gary Alexander on the run. Gov. Paul LePage is begging for privacy while he cleans up his mess, and nationally Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wisconsin, backpedaled on an invite for Alexander to speak before the House Budget Committee. What took them so long to start running? Reading the now-infamous Alexander Group report for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services should have been the starting gun.
The last sentence in a description of the report says it all. The last of this series of self-aggrandizing, run-on sentences reads:
“Deploying cost-effective savings methodologies to ensure a value-, transparent-, and efficiency-based system, our reforms drive innovation, improve service quality and performance, incentivize accountability and consumer engagement, modernize operations, and root out fraud, waste, and abuse.”
First, what is up with that sentence? Second, root out fraud, waste and abuse? This report is an abuse of taxpayer dollars in and of itself. What is the going hourly rate for cutting and pasting? Or overly inundating a report with readily available statistics with limited substantive context? Or making recommendations drawn from assumptions and flawed math? Paying $925,000 for those couple hundred pages is a bit of a stretch.
One sentences actually says, “Assuming that each case was a single individual receiving $200 per month in benefits amounts to $2,400 per case over the course of twelve months,” without identifying the basis for this presumption. Critical thinkers call this technique a baseless assumption.
The report recommends subsidizing and mandating jobs for certain benefit recipients. At the beginning of the report, though, the authors acknowledge that a working single parent of three would have to earn $16 an hour to equal the standard of living provided at $8 an hour with government assistance.
A quick scan of median wages for Maine at the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows most of the entry-level jobs available to recipients fall below that $16-per-hour mark. The point of financing jobs that will not free recipients from government assistance and forcing jobs that statistics show will not cover basic expenses is unclear.
It is clear the recommendation is useless for Maine’s poor, unless it comes with an increased minimum and/or living wage law. The MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates that a single parent of three in Maine needs to earn more than $31 an hour to cover basic expenses absent government assistance. Maybe some of our recipients could get jobs with the Alexander Group.
The report itself undermines the group’s recommendation that the state apply for a “global waiver” to administer its MaineCare program. The state currently administers the program utilizing six different waivers, which the report finds cumbersome in their individual bureaucracies and regulations. One “global waiver” would give the administration greater flexibility and authority in redesigning the entire program.
Overhauling a bunch of our services to meet Maine’s unique needs more cost-effectively with better outcomes sounds good on paper, except the paper is this highly suspect report. If either its authors or the administration that was willing to pay them are going to draft the redesign, we should keep what we’ve got for now. If the state requests such a waiver, the federal government could use this report as a primary justification for saying, no. The report reflects poor stewardship of taxpayer dollars and overall lack of good judgment.
Allegations of plagiarism aside, the report is heavy on statistics, light on substance. Statistics are an important part of framing public policy and easy to manipulate. Statistics without context are mindless exercises in number recitation, leading to questions rather than serving as foundations for solutions.
Why does Maine have the highest percentage of nursing home residents with dementia? Is that trend expected to continue? If mental health is the fourth largest cost-driver in MaineCare, growing at an “annual rate of 17%,” why only one page? Did the prescription drug abuse epidemic, given a whole paragraph, have anything to do with skyrocketing MaineCare costs in the last decade?
Why did anyone take this report seriously?
Trish Callahan is a mother and writer who lives in Augusta and does consulting work for a local nonprofit.