Even a bad DHHS commissioner deserves $127,000 in pay

Before I begin and people start lighting torches, I need to clarify that I am not a fan of Gov. Paul LePage or Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. A quick BDN search of my name will pull up ample evidence of how little I support their actions. Further, announcing raises for his cabinet members in the wake of such a dysfunctional legislative session is piss-poor timing on LePage’s part.

However, even a bad DHHS commissioner deserves $127,000 a year. I’ve worked under DHHS contract money, and I’ve received services under those same funds, and frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to do the job. And that’s without having to call LePage my boss.

Both LePage and former Gov. John Baldacci struggled to fill the position. When nominating Mayhew, a former Maine Hospital Association lobbyist, to the position, LePage joked about having “been rejected by more women in the last two weeks than in four years of high school and six years of college.”

Baldacci brought in former finance administrator Jack Nicholas to run the department and oversee the merger of Human Services and Behavioral Health, which didn’t go well, prompting his resignation. Among the reasons given for his resignation, Nicholas referred to the demands of government service being “tough on my family.” Brenda Harvey was temporarily put in the position and was then named to the post for the remainder of his administration.

The current commissioner and her two predecessors all have different backgrounds, but all have been criticized for their performance one way or another. Having someone whose strength is in numbers (Nicholas) didn’t go so well. Having someone whose background is more serviced-based (Harvey) didn’t go so well either, as that administration handed its costly computer errors to the LePage administration.

Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at the opening of the new regional home for state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor offices in South Portland in January 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at the opening of the new regional home for state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor offices in South Portland in January 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Mayhew’s background involves hospitals and lobbying, which has some obvious applications for the position she holds, but it offers little in terms of all the services under the DHHS umbrella that have nothing to do with hospitals. In my opinion, this lack of understanding leaves her susceptible to the whims of our governor and his tea party agenda.

And don’t get me started on my views of the performance of Gov. Angus King’s Kevin Concannon. Again, in my opinion, the DHHS mess has been snowballing since then, but I digress. What can we learn from the struggles of current and past leadership at DHHS/DHS?

That running DHHS is like no other state cabinet position. That getting competency in a department that oversees an over $3 billion budget is going to cost money. And that the governor’s communications office might be right in suggesting that running the department might be done more effectively by two cabinet members.

I always thought the department should be run in a way that mirrors a corporate structure with one commissioner acting as a CEO and another as a COO. Just the sheer size of the budget alone is daunting, let alone the span of services, contractors, agencies and medical organizations under its umbrella. The over 3,000 state staff at DHHS is only a part of the workforce operating under DHHS funds. To expect one person to handle both the numbers and the operations of such a gigantic entity is completely unrealistic and is getting our state the kind of results to which I previously referred.

And those are just the numbers results.  A cost-benefit analysis of service results probably wouldn’t be much prettier.

No one knows what the immediate future holds. LePage may resign; LePage may be impeached. Mayhew could decide to jump ship. Or she might stick around for three more years. Either way, the fact remains that the pay for that position needs to be competitive, and, further, we may need to pay it twice to get the kind of outcomes Maine needs from that department.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.