State House News Service

State House Roundup: Politics Of Accountability

BOSTON — The proverbial buck, and where it stops, proved to be a nearly all-consuming question this week and one, for many who asked, that lacked a satisfying answer.

There’s blood in the water. And sharks – both blue and red – were circling.

Gov. Deval Patrick, after seven years at the switch, continues to ride strong popularity numbers, but can’t even count on his fellow Democrats these days to have his back as he bounces from crisis to crisis, namely the unfolding controversies surrounding his child protection agency and the disastrous rollout of the Health Connector enrollment website.

Almost everyone is running for something (except Patrick), and someone must be held accountable. It’s open season on Beacon Hill.

Implementing Obamacare in Massachusetts was supposed to be a cinch. The state had basically done it before, seven years earlier and Obamacare was supposedly modeled after RomneyCare. Or so the refrain went. But as Patrick’s new health exchange czar noted before a legislative committee this week, the complexity of tuning up the well-oiled enrollment machine may have been greatly underestimated.

Sarah Iselin, a Blue Cross Blue Shield executive now in charge of fixing the dysfunctional Health Connector website, spent her first full week on the job trying to calm the nerves of frustrated lawmakers and set a course to enroll thousands of residents in new Affordable Care Act-compliant plans without the benefit a website that was supposed to do much of the work.

If there was any doubt about the pressure bearing down on health care officials, Connector Executive Director Jean Yang choked back tears as she spoke to her board about the weight she felt having to tell her employees they were coming up short, despite the days, nights and weekends they have spent trying to make up for the site’s failings.

The state got a break from the Obama administration, which informally approved an extension for Massachusetts that will allow 155,000 residents with coverage through the Connector to be extended three months beyond the March 31 deadline.

Appearing before the Health Care Financing Committee, Iselin absorbed a barrage of frustration and criticism from lawmakers who have been hearing from constituents struggling to penetrate the Connector to enroll in new coverage. All she could do was sympathize and promise to put the technology project back on track with the help of a new IT vendor and the 300 workers they will provide to begin breaking down the backlog of 50,000 paper applications that must be manually entered into the system at an old-school labor cost of two-hours per application.

“I’m not leaving this hearing feeling any more comforted than when I came in,” Rep. Majorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, told Iselin after three-and-a-half hours of questioning.

Democrats and Republicans alike vented about Patrick sending Iselin to testify and not more senior members of his Cabinet who could answer for why the web project went so terribly wrong. The legislators were also concerned about what will happen in four months when Iselin is due to return to her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“The governor keeps saying no one will fall through the cracks, but we see constituents every day who are falling through the cracks,” said Sen. James Welch, the chair of the committee who ramped up his concerns after initially telling the News Service his office hadn’t heard from many constituents with Connector problems.

If that wasn’t enough to deal with, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Olga Roche ended the week clinging to her job. Calls for her resignation, which started with Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker, extended to lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, who have lost faith in her leadership while Gov. Patrick has not.

A budget hearing in Watertown this week gave lawmakers their latest opportunity to dig into Roche, and the policies of the embattled agency she runs. The DCF failures with regard to the disappearance of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver are well known, but both the House and Senate felt compelled to take action to address the agency’s practice in the face of a shortage of foster homes to grant special waivers to those convicted of crimes at some point in their lives.

“Where does the buck stop, because I have yet to hear the governor or the commissioner point to anything but funding and technology as the answers?” said Rep. Matthew Beaton, a Shrewsbury Republican.

Roche has largely taken responsibility for the shortcomings at DCF, and Patrick and the broader child welfare community continues to support her, for now. “Given that the agency is destabilized in many respects because of so much incoming bad publicity, I think it’s a terrible time to change up the leadership,” the governor said Friday.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running to succeed Patrick, took the same position this week when she was grilled about Roche after a roundtable event at Suffolk University. Coakley’s front-running status in the polls has put a bulls-eye on her back, and while Baker seems to be playing each scandalous headline to its maximum advantage, the attorney general spent her week fending off flip-flopping charges from Democratic rival Steve Grossman, the state treasurer, and contemplating what it might mean for her own ambitions if she is called to testify during the upcoming trial of former Probation Commissioner John O’Brien about job recommendations.

While Patrick tried to navigate the choppy waters, the House and Senate showed themselves to be a study in contrasts, if not on policy and priorities, then on tactics, culture and style.

Both branches met with the foremost goal of passing a supplemental spending bill that included, among other things, additional funding for hotel and motel shelters and a down-payment to begin hiring additional social workers to reduce caseload burdens at the Department of Children and Families.

The debate in the House consisted of basically no debate at all as DeLeo and deputies huddled with amendments to make decisions on what could be attached and what could not, and the rank-and-file said little about the verdicts.

The Senate leadership was equally stingy in green-lighting changes to the budget bill they had prepared, but senators showed no qualms about standing up and speaking on behalf of their proposals, even if Senate President Therese Murray was there looking over their shoulders and reminding, “It’s snowing.”

The fairly routine mid-year spending bill also offered a glimpse into the power dynamics at play on Beacon Hill between Murray, who will leave the Legislature at the end of the year, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. “He’s having his King of the Hill moment,” said one Senate insider.

DeLeo attached to the bill a freeze in unemployment insurance rates, which will save businesses millions of dollars this year. But even though the Senate is on the record in agreement with the move, the branch rejected a Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr amendment that would have solidified the freeze.

The vote appeared a bit of a message to DeLeo, who has taken his time addressing the issue of raising the minimum wage and proposing more comprehensive unemployment insurance reforms while the Senate has developed and passed separate proposals doing both.

“There’s time to get it to the finish line,” Majority Leader Sen. Stan Rosenberg assured.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The Connector struggles to connect anyone with health care, but help has arrived.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Your name and my name in the same newspaper story is never good,” OCPF Director Michael Sullivan to budget-writing committee lawmakers.

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