From the folks on the front lines working to help families recover from poverty, to the staunchest government watchdog, there is broad agreement that we cannot tolerate waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in our anti-poverty programs.

Unfortunately, that broad agreement breaks down in the overheated rhetoric around poverty, welfare and how best to help families who are struggling.

The facts in Maine are disturbing. The number of children living in poverty is going up and homelessness is increasing.

That’s why we need to put the focus of the fight against waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the right place — and maximize every dollar that the state has intended to help poor kids and people without a safe and secure place to live.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has released a thoughtful proposal that could save the state millions of dollars, improve the performance of the Department of Health and Human Services and better protect working families who are struggling in a tough economy.

Michaud wants to create the Office of Inspector General for DHHS.

The inspector general would bring together the expertise and the authority to hold the department accountable, to improve service delivery and to fight waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at all levels.

After three years of mismanagement by Gov. Paul LePage and his administration, the department is in disarray, stumbling from one scandal to the next with little accountability.

The list is long and shameful.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention is under investigation for shredding documents related to a questionable grant award.

Millions of dollars have been spent – most recently $5 million without any real explanation – on a failed effort to privatize non-emergency transportation services for vulnerable people.

A no-bid contract was awarded to the Alexander Group for a worthless report that was plagiarized and riddled with errors. Money was wasted and the prospects for getting it back don’t look good.

Deficiencies at Riverview Psychiatric Center have cost the state $20 million and put in jeopardy patients and staff alike.

The list of failures goes on and on.

It’s time we take control of DHHS and ensure that it is run in a transparent, accountable way, that the rules are being followed and that every dollar that’s meant to help poor children and working families is spent appropriately.

Gov. LePage has made a second career out of attacking working families, and would like the public to believe that poor people are lazy or undeserving. That is not true.

We know that single moms are working two or three jobs and still not able to make ends meet. We know that families are struggling in an economy that works for the wealthy but not for everyone else.

That’s the strength of the inspector general.

The office will have the power and authority to identify and fix problems before they spiral out of control. It will work with state employees to improve systems and to find and eliminate fraud and abuse.

And it will make sure that the abuses of the last three and one-half years are never repeated.

The Office of Inspector General would oversee fraud investigations and make sure that programs are being run with integrity and efficiency. It would strengthen internal controls and protect whistleblowers who uncover wrongdoing. And it would make the department more transparent and accountable to the governor, the Legislature and the public.

The Department of Health and Human Services is one of the largest, most complicated agencies in state government. In many cases, its job is to help families in crisis, to build pathways out of poverty, to treat people with compassion and respect.

There are good people on the front lines every day working to make our state and our families stronger and healthier. But they have been abandoned by an administration that prefers to put partisan politics ahead of real efforts to serve the people of Maine.

An inspector general could begin to repair the damage that has been done, so that state agencies can provide more effective and efficient help to the people who need it, and the difficult work of restoring trust in state government can begin.

Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, serves Maine Senate District 14. He is chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research & Economic Development Committee and a member of the Veterans &  Legal Affairs Committee.


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