It’s alarming to hear that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is in the final stages of signing a $62.5 million contract with a private company to oversee a major public assistance program.

That the proposed contractor is a New York City nonprofit that has been sued at least a dozen times in the past three years adds to the sense of unease, but it’s not the most troubling element in this story.

The biggest concern is not whether Fedcap Rehabilitation Services is capable of overseeing the ASPIRE program, an education, training and work program for people who receive cash welfare assistance — it’s whether the Maine DHHS is capable of overseeing Fedcap.

The department’s track record when it comes outsourcing services to contractors has been dismal. In a pair of high-profile incidents, the state wasted taxpayer money on contractors who delivered subpar services. People in need suffered, while contractors cashed fat checks.

Before anyone representing the state of Maine signs this agreement, Mainers deserve a clear explanation of how things will be different this time.

The first fiasco occurred in the summer of 2013, when the LePage administration chose to replace a functioning system for transporting MaineCare recipients to medical appointments with a new system run by private out-of-state contractors. The complaints started immediately, when thousands of patients were left waiting for rides, leading them to miss appointments and creating havoc in doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics.

After months of confusion, many problems with the service were ironed out, but the state ended up paying $5.4 million more the year after the privatized service was established than it did for the old, state-coordinated system

The next management embarrassment came near the end of 2013, when DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew signed a no-bid, nearly $1 million contract with the Alexander Group for a study of the state’s public assistance programs. The contractor repeatedly missed deadlines for its work, and when the reports were delivered, they were found to be crude cut-and-paste jobs largely made up of plagiarized documents.

When that was uncovered by the media, Gov. LePage suspended further payments of the $400,000 still owed to the company, but the $500,000 already paid was lost.

Contracting services is not necessarily the wrong way for the state to provide them. In fact, most DHHS services are already provided through hundreds of contracts with local hospitals and nonprofit agencies.

And there is nothing wrong with helping welfare recipients overcome barriers to find work, as long as we recognize that caring for children and family members who are elderly or have a disability is also work and expensive to replace when a caregiver is working elsewhere.

But before signing any contract, the state should be able to present a detailed analysis that shows why a state-run program has failed to meet federal benchmarks, and why a private company would be expected to do better without costing much more.

The state should also set specific timelines and performance standards that hold the contractor accountable so that transition avoids the kinds of problems that resulted from outsourcing the ride service.

And the state should have an iron-clad escape clause, which would protect Maine from a repeat of the Alexander Group mistake.

Mainers have a right to be skeptical of the department’s ability to successfully outsource such an important service. Taxpayers deserve proof that the people at DHHS have learned from their mistakes.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: