If conservative politicians want welfare reform, do something about addiction

I think when the 127th Legislature reconvenes, it should kick off the session with a movie night. I’d like to recommend the movie “A Beautiful Mind” about Nobel prize-winning economist John Forbes Nash Jr., who passed away this year.

Our legislators could wear comfy clothes, get some popcorn, some pizzas, even invite the governor —though he’d probably turn them down.

They don’t have to watch the whole thing — just the parts that explain game theory and the Nash equilibrium. A little equilibrium is exactly what our political climate needs right now.

I know, what the heck am I talking about? Game theory and politics?

PBS’s program “American Experience” has a decent breakdown of game theory, which “studies the interactive decision making, where the outcome for each participant or ‘player’ depends on the actions of all.” For one participant to achieve a desired outcome that participant must consider the strategies of the other participants also strategizing to achieve their own desired outcomes.

The Nash Equilibrium suggests that in some situations, there can be a convergence of strategies that increases the likelihood of the best possible sets of outcomes for the participants. Or at least that’s my layperson’s takeaway from it. I think in the movie the example involved three guys trying to pick up girls in a bar.

If the three guys all tried to one-up each other to win the most desired girl in the group, the likely outcome was that no one would win the most desired girl or any of the other girls in the group. However if the group of young men worked collectively to keep the attention of the entire group of girls, the potential for individual hook-ups increased. A convergence of strategies.

A thorough editorial in the Bangor Daily News highlighted the importance of a convergence of strategies to pull Maine’s economy out of its years-long backslide. Republican ideology, alone, will not solve our economic woes. Democratic ideology, alone, will not solve our economic woes.

A convergence of strategies from both parties just might.

And the same can be said of so many other pressing issues, like welfare reform. Republicans like to see it as a signature issue but are reluctant to embrace any other strategies than what they deem to be reform. Even if what Republicans deem to be reform just isn’t.

Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Leigh Saufley, at rostrum, delivers her 2015 State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature in this February 2015 file photo. (Mario Moretto | BDN)

Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Leigh Saufley, at rostrum, delivers her 2015 State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature in this February 2015 file photo. (Mario Moretto | BDN)

For example, the LePage administration’s plan to instate an asset test (where people become ineligible for food stamps if a combined value of certain assets — a savings account, a second car, a snowmobile — exceeds $5,000) isn’t reform, unless reform means grow the cost of government.

When Gary Alexander was public welfare secretary in Pennsylvania, the asset test was instituted there. Pennsylvania has since eliminated it and anticipates $3.5 million in savings.

There’s no avoiding the fact that adding layers of administrative requirements lead to expensive errors and increased costs.

And no matter what the governor says, there is no reason to believe the asset test will stop the small percentage of recipients who purchase drugs with SNAP benefits from doing so. As for the relatively few SNAP recipients who are dealing drugs — unfortunately they will be savvy enough to hide their assets to continue to qualify for the program.

The only way I can see to eradicate the problem is slowly, by addressing the addiction epidemic itself, which requires access to quality treatment, well-resourced law enforcement, and corrections programs that address behavior rehabilitation.

That’s right. I’m saying that addressing the addiction epidemic is welfare reform — that’s the convergence part.

Policing providers who benefit from MaineCare is also welfare reform. A report from the Office of the Inspector General from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services unit that investigates MaineCare fraud only turned 16 cases over for prosecution in the last three years. The department’s spokesman said only cases that are likely to be prosecuted are turned over.

But by the LePage administration’s own admission, this fraud is big money fraud. Already in 2015, the special unit has identified $10 million in recoupments.

So why so few referrals for prosecutions? Democratic State Rep. Drew Gattine, co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee was quoted as saying that “he’s been trying to get detailed reports about Medicaid provider fraud for years because that is where most taxpayer money is lost.” Sounds like a Democrat attempting to reform welfare to me.

I guess it’s just hard to call it that if the reform targets providers rather than demonizing the recipients they serve.

In June I wrote about Democratic State Rep. Jeff McCabe proposing a welfare reform law. LD 1324 was designed to track large employers with employees and their family members on MaineCare. If some larger for-profit employers are purposefully restricting hours to shift health care costs from company health care plans to taxpayer-funded MaineCare, that’s a big welfare problem in need of reform.

But LD 1324 went nowhere. Again, welfare reform is easier to see when it demonizes recipients rather than their employers who under-employ and under-pay. Had Republicans converged strategies with Democrats rather than focused solely on their own welfare reform strategies, LD 1324 might have done better.

Taxpayers might have seen real reform.

It’s time for a movie.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

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