The callousness of DHHS head Mary Mayhew

The callousness of DHHS head Mary Mayhew

The litany of LePage’s attacks on the poor, sick and vulnerable could fill a book, never mind an article. In the name of saving money, in order to turn it over to millionaires and corporations, LePage is willing to spare no program, or person. He never stops looking for ways to give more money to the least needy, and less services to the most needy, in some kind of bizarre, reverse-Robin-Hood quest.

When Paul LePage can’t achieve brutal cuts to services through the legislature, he turns to his trusty Commissioner over at the Department of Health and Human Services, Mary “Let-Them-Eat-Cake” Mayhew. Commissioner Mayhew shares LePage’s deep suspicion and dislike for Maine’s most vulnerable citizens, and is more than happy to help him carry out his spiteful agenda through quietly rewriting DHHS rules, away from the pesky scrutiny of the legislature. LePage has appointed a fox to guard the henhouse.

Strangely, Commissioner Mayhew spent most of her life as a Democrat, at least in name. Yet somehow she has become the standard bearer for the worst of Paul LePage’s agenda. It could have something to do with her many years of service to the hospital lobbying industry. Upon her appointment to her position at DHHS, she stated: “I believe I have a vision that is very much aligned with LePage’s.” The arch-conservative Heritage Policy Foundation agrees, and gave her an award in 2014 for her pioneering work destroying the social safety net.

Commissioner Mayhew has definitely earned her award.

She has been a fierce enforcer of the Governor’s obscene attacks on recipients of TANF (welfare) and SNAP (food stamps) benefits. They have painted a picture of these programs as fraud-addled, with widespread stealing and abuse among recipients. In reality, the evidence shows that welfare fraud is extremely rare. This is nothing but a cynical strategy to demonize the poor in order to gain public support for cutting benefits.

In fact, they have been successful at adding so many new restrictions to these programs that there have been vast reductions in recipients, something roundly celebrated by LePage, Mayhew and the conservative press. However, these reductions do not indicate a reduction in need, but rather an increase in need as people can no longer access benefits. Severe poverty and hunger in Maine has increased at an alarming rate under this regime, with a 50% increase in child poverty between 2010 and 2014. Adults are suffering too, as hunger has increased in Maine so alarmingly that the federal Agriculture Department has chastised Mayhew and DHHS for cutting access to food stamps too drastically.

Mayhew has been just as merciless in her treatment of the mentally ill that her department is charged to protect.

Under her watch, the Riverview Psychiatric Center descended into such a state of understaffing and chaos, that in 2013 the federal government pulled $20 million in funding after conducting an audit. The problems continue to this day, with Mayhew offering such creative solutions as incarcerating severely mentally disturbed patients rather than providing the staffing and care that they need.

Recently, Commissioner Mayhew has begun making drastic changes to the way DHHS provides mental health services through the rule writing process.

Early this year, Mayhew attempted to change the rules for determining the level of mental disability of a client and the amount of corresponding benefits they are eligible for from an individual centered assessment to a simple standardized test. While Mayhew spoke of efficiency, this test had the potential to throw thousands of severely mentally handicapped Mainers out of needed support systems. Concerned caregivers and parents aggressively lobbied the legislature and managed to successfully stop this rule change, though it is unclear what Mayhew will propose in its place.

Undeterred, Mayhew has gone on to drastically narrow the definition of who can receive case management services, resulting in approximately 8,000 people losing this vital support. She has also reduced reimbursement rates to those who provide these services, further exacerbating the shortage.

She has changed the rules for peer recovery centers, an important rung in mental health recovery that allows people to interact with peers and learn social skills. These centers are member-focused and run, and cost little to maintain. Yet Mayhew has issued new rules reducing member control and budget changes which will result in closures of four out of the twelve existing centers in the state.

Just a few more to complete the picture: Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the safe level for lead in children is 5 parts per million, not the 10 ppm the state of Maine currently has it set at, the CDC, under Mayhew, has refused to move quickly to adjust those levels and provide services to Maine children suffering from lead poisoning.

Mayhew also tells the Portland Press Herald that she needs more data to move on the heroin epidemic, and that treatment centers aren’t providing enough detailed data. Perhaps because they are dealing with this data: Heroin deaths in Maine have increased a record 31% from a previous record of 208 deaths in 2014, to 272 deaths in 2015.

Mayhew’s attacks on Maine’s vulnerable have not gone unchallenged. As she pursues her backwards agenda, advocates for Maine’s most vulnerable, and vulnerable Mainers themselves, are standing up and speaking out. Sometimes they are successful in stopping or slowing the assault, sometimes they are not.

Throughout it all, Mayhew’s response remains the same. She frames her actions as part of a grand scheme to reduce poverty and mental illness by reducing dependency. She paints a picture of the need being created by the services, rather than the services meeting a need. While this may go over well at Heritage Policy Center award dinners, to regular Mainers who are suffering, it sounds like the cruel, tone deaf suggestion that it is: “Let them eat cake!”

Photo via Andi Parkinson.

About author

April Thibodeau
April Thibodeau 11 posts

April Thibodeau majored in Political Science at the University of Maine and has experience in law, non-profit work and political advocacy. She lives on Westport Island with her husband and two cats and enjoys gardening, homesteading and rural life.

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