Shocking, but not surprising news this morning out of the capitol city. Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz:
Gov. Peter Shumlin has dismissed onetime political rival Doug Racine as secretary of the embattled Agency of Human Services.
“These decisions are difficult, but the governor felt a change in leadership at AHS was needed at this time,” Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen said Tuesday morning.
Laura Krantz at VTDigger writes it as a Racine departure, not a firing. Which makes me wonder if the last straw was last week’s emergency budget adjustment, with its calls for further cuts in an already-overstretched agency. Maybe Racine stood up for his people, and got shot down for his trouble. I have no inside information on that point, but the timing certainly fits.
Whether a push or a jump, the shock is the suddenness of it all and the fact that the scythe took its first cut at the top level rather than, say, taking a Mark Larson or a Robin Lunge. It’s not surprising because sooner or later someone in state government had to take the fall for Vermont Health Connect’s continued troubles.
I say so not because any one of the three is more or less culpable for the VHC mess, but because Larson and Lunge were more directly involved. And because a cabinet member is a key gubernatorial appointment, this is a more direct reflection on the Governor himself.
But as Heintz points out, the trouble isn’t all health care-related. AHS’ Department of Children and Families has also come in for criticism following the deaths of two young children under its supervision. In that context, Racine was the most relevant target.
Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen will be interim AHS chief, with an appointment through the end of the year.
My take, and I have absolutely no knowledge of how AHS works or doesn’t: It was an almost impossible job. In fact, when Shumlin appointed his chief political rival to the post, I wondered whether it was an honor or an exile. AHS is a big, complicated operation that’s usually overtaxed and underresourced. Racine took the job after years of Jim Douglas-mandated cuts, and the disastrous implementation of Challenges for Change. It was the kind of job that was almost certain to leave Racine with a tainted reputation as a manager, especially with the Governor’s aversion to tax hikes and obsession with cost-cutting. And on top of all that, AHS was home base for health care reform and its myriad pitfalls.
It was a thankless job, and Racine kept at it for almost four years. And did his job largely out of the public spotlight, with a dignity and dedication that speaks well of him.