On Jan. 11, the BDN’s Maine Focus team published the results of an in-depth look at how the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was handling a legally required electronic upgrade to a nutrition program for women and young children.
The BDN obtained communications between the state and federal government that showed Maine had to forfeit $1.4 million because of an ideological stance of Commissioner Mary Mayhew: She halted the switch to electronic WIC benefit cards because the federal government wouldn’t pay to include participant photo IDs on them.
Now, both Mayhew and Gov. Paul LePage are trying to discredit the story with false information.
WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, serves 20,000 low-income women, infants and young children in Maine. WIC recipients are required to participate in nutrition education, and they’re issued paper vouchers worth about $40 per person each month that they can redeem for a specific list of nutritious foods, such as milk, whole-wheat bread, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The program is entirely federally funded.
By October 2020, WIC programs in every state will have to abandon those paper vouchers for swipe cards that are supposed to make it easier for participants to redeem their benefits, simplify transactions for grocers and reduce improper payments.
But Mayhew stalled Maine’s transition to a paperless system for WIC as other states have moved ahead. That’s because she insists Maine’s new WIC benefit cards carry photo IDs, despite the lack of evidence of fraud within the nutrition program that a photo ID would address. (Cards can be used by multiple family members.)
When the federal government said it wouldn’t support the IDs, Mayhew foolishly dug in. Rather than continue with a legally required technological update — that actually would help eliminate program errors, such as participants redeeming their benefits for the wrong food — she just stopped doing her job.
One result was having to forfeit $1.4 million of the $2.5 million federal grant Maine received to pay for the electronic transition because DHHS didn’t commit the money to approved expenses soon enough. The state can recoup the funding later if it decides to move ahead with the upgrade.
After the BDN published the story, Mayhew could have restarted the program’s legally required improvement. Instead, she resorted to distorting the story, perhaps counting on people to not actually read it.
One BDN reader, for instance, emailed Mayhew with concerns and received this response from the commissioner: “Please be assured that the allegations you are hearing are completely false. It is important to note that the Bangor Daily News incorrectly reported that Maine lost $1.4 million in federal funding for the Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) program. The WIC program is fully funded, and not one child or mother that is eligible for the program will lose any support.”
The story never said that the WIC program was losing funding for benefits or that participants would suffer. It didn’t assert that benefits would be cut or denied. The BDN linked to documentation within the story showing DHHS forfeited $1.4 million in grant money for the technological upgrade because federal officials had no confidence that Maine would be able to spend it before it lapsed. If Mayhew had a real concern, she never contacted the BDN directly about it.
Rather than defend her actions, she resorted to a false statement about the messenger.
Mayhew has taken this tack before. In the summer, the BDN reported that DHHS had improperly used federal grant money. Mayhew said, “The BDN has their facts wrong.” Later, she reversed the spending in question, and the state auditor confirmed the misspending.
On Tuesday, LePage continued to spread false information about the BDN’s story on the George Hale and Ric Tyler radio show, saying the story was “so wrong it’s sinful that they would put that kind of information out there.”
He said DHHS delayed the technological update to see how the new presidential administration would handle the WIC program.
“It’s just been delayed to see what the new administration is going to do in Washington … to see whether or not they’re going to continue going forward with it. That’s all. That’s all it is. There’s no money lost,” LePage said.
In the approximately 100 pages of communications reviewed by the BDN, no one said they were putting the WIC transition on hold to wait for the new president. In fact, the LePage administration began talking about requiring photo IDs in July 2015 — more than 15 months before the election. It put the upgrade on hold in September 2015.
Delaying compliance with the federal law to update the WIC program is bad enough. Mayhew and LePage don’t need to add blatant misrepresentation to the mix.