PORTLAND, Maine — Mary Mayhew, the controversial commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, was honored Tuesday by the state’s pre-eminent conservative think tank, the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
Mayhew, who left a job lobbying for the Maine Hospital Association to join the LePage administration in 2011, “was critical to the conservative movement’s victories” this year, said MHPC board member Jinger Duryea, who presented Mayhew with the group’s annual Freedom and Opportunity Award.
Duryea heralded Mayhew’s “unwavering commitment to limited government, individual liberty and human dignity.”
Mayhew has emphasized streamlining and savings during her tenure at the helm of DHHS, a massive state agency with a $3.4 billion budget. She and Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, regularly have referred to what they described as runaway spending at DHHS and said the agency should prioritize services for the disabled, children and elderly — not “able-bodied” adults living in poverty.
Mayhew described her tenure so far as marked by “tough choices” and said she and LePage have only begun the work of right-sizing DHHS.
“This administration had to put the brakes on,” she said. “We set our sights on stabilizing the financial foundation, paying our bills, meeting the needs of our most vulnerable and putting people back to work. … Put simply, we are infusing Maine’s welfare safety net with integrity, transparency and common sense.”
Under Mayhew’s watch, the state repaid roughly $750 million in hospital debt and controlled Medicaid spending such that the department predicts zero growth in 2014 and 2015. Mayhew also prioritized performance measures and instituted “accountable care,” which allows health care providers that provide quality service at lower cost to share in state savings.
The department also established a five-year lifetime limit on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which contributed to a 50 percent decline in TANF enrollment, and implemented Democrat-led efforts to partner the agency with the Department of Labor to offer welfare recipients a clearer path to work.
Mayhew said that she has prioritized transparency and accountability, such as the new statewide policy to require photo ID on EBT cards — a plan decried by opponents as a political tool to raise suspicion about welfare recipients.
Still, MHPC handing its premier award to Mayhew will do little to stem criticism from Democrats and their allies who say Mayhew and LePage’s policy agenda is driven by ideology, not the pursuit of public welfare.
Throughout much of the last Legislature, when Democrats controlled both chambers, Mayhew was second only to LePage himself as the Democrats’ chief political foil.
When Riverview Psychiatric Center lost critical federal accreditation — and funding — it was Mayhew in the hot seat at the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. Democratic lawmakers regularly criticized what they described as Mayhew’s “mismanagement.”
It was a position she’d find herself in again and again — when the state’s Medicaid rides program was plagued with problems, when the department hired a controversial consultant to study welfare (the company ultimately was fired after instances of plagiarism were reported by the media), and when the state Center for Disease Control was embroiled in a document shredding scandal.
Mayhew also was a leading voice in the opposition to Medicaid expansion, a key pillar of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Democrats said the expansion would boost the state’s economy by providing access to needed health care to roughly 70,000 low-income Mainers, funded almost entirely by federal money.
Mayhew warned that expansion would cost taxpayers untold millions and needlessly expand the state’s welfare rolls at a time when MaineCare spending already represents nearly one-quarter of all state spending, but the figures she referenced were far out of line with most independent analyses of welfare expansion.
LePage successfully vetoed Democrats’ effort to expand Medicaid five times.
In a written statement, Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said that under Mayhew, DHHS was “a sinking ship.”
“Under her watch, she’s allowed ongoing chronic mismanagement to go unchecked, resulting in wasted taxpayer dollars,” he said. “DHHS needs accountability, not accolades. This is just another example of blind loyalty from the GOP to reward bad behavior among their own, even at the expense of Maine taxpayers.”
Mayhew addressed the criticism she had faced from what she and others at the MHPC luncheon described as a hostile media and stiff political opposition.
“It’s easy to politicize the debate about DHHS reform,” she said. “It’s easy to continue to pretend that you can be all things to all people. It’s much more difficult to acknowledge that tough choices have to be made.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.