Tag Archives: Dr. Harry Chen

If you can’t improve your product, get a better salesman

Let’s start with the thesis (for once): I still don’t understand why Doug Racine was fired. I have some guesses, but the official story doesn’t wash. 

From Governor Shumlin, we’ve heard the usual “time for a change” bullcrap. From Racine, we’ve heard that the Administration wanted more of an “ambassador,” while he’d been keeping his nose to the grindstone at the Agency of Human Services. Racine offered the following comments in a Wednesday interview on VPR’s Vermont Edition: 

They mostly focused on style. [They said it wasn’t about the troubles at the Department of Children and Familes, and never mentioned Vermont Health Connect.] I had been focused on the Agency… What they said they wanted was somebody who was going to be out there a little bit more, in front of the media, and in front of local groups and constituent groups, and just to be talking more publicly about the good work of the agency. They said I wasn’t the right person to do that.

Well gee, Doug Racine spent a lot of years in politics. I’d think he could be an effective “ambassador” if needed. And if he believed in the product. Besides, a problem with “style” doesn’t seem urgent enough to warrant the sudden and immediate dismissal of an original cabinet member. Hell, Racine cleared out his desk right after his firing: they wanted him gone, and gone NOW. They didn’t want him wiping his hard drive or stealing office supplies. 

I don’t have any inside information, but here’s what I think. The Shumlin Administration knew it would be cutting the budget, and that most of the cuts would happen at AHS. They knew the agency was already overstretched, and that Racine had long believed it was badly under-resourced. 

I look at the ratios, I look at the work they do, I talk with a lot of the workers. They’re very stressed. They’re dealing with families in exceedingly difficult situations.They need more people, there’s no question about it.

And then Racine said something I found telling: 

 I met with some of the [DCF staffers] who testified [at Tuesday’s legislative hearing], I met with them last week, and I urged them to go and tell their story to the Legislature. …I’m glad that they were there, I’m glad they testified, and I hope the Legislature was listening.

That hearing gave voice to the frustration and despair among DCF staffers. In the context of this week’s budget cuts — which Racine had to know about last week — their testimony was a big fat warning shot across the Administration’s bow. And he encouraged them to speak out. Not very ambassadorial, that. 

When Doug Racine ran for Governor in 2010, concern about Human Services was one of his top priorities. As AHS Secretary under Shumlin, he has tried to stretch the available resources as far as he could. He was a loyal soldier, trying to preserve human services programs in very tough times and not complaining in public. 

And then came another round of cuts, and the primary targets, per VTDigger, were (1) the already overextended DCF, and (2) Shumlin’s pet project for 2014: substance abuse treatment. 

Do you think that might have forced a confrontation with Racine? It looks to me like the Administration not only wanted him to swallow more bad news, but wanted him to get out in public and actively promote the budget. He could have done the former, but he couldn’t bring himself to do the latter. 

Again, no inside information, just educated inference. 

The only explanation I can think of for the timing is (1) the pending budget cuts, and (2) the election campaign. Shumlin wanted a cheerleader, and Racine wouldn’t pick up the pom-poms. 

Meanwhile, the interim AHS chief, Dr. Harry Chen, is by all accounts a good guy and an able administrator. But when I read Terri Hallenbeck’s story in the Freeploid, I saw some obvious holes in Chen’s game. First of all, he describes himself as very much a hands-on manager coming to a job where that might not be possible: 

Chen… said the management style he brings to the job includes lots of interaction with staff. 

“I wander the halls,” Chen said, acknowledging that as secretary of an agency that oversees such a vast array of services, there may be too many halls to wander in too many far-flung buildings.

And Senator Kevin Mullin pointed out that “two key areas where Chen may lack expertise the agency sorely needs is in information technology and child protection issues.” Which happen to be the two biggest challenges facing AHS. 

Dr. Chen’s interim appointment expires at the end of the year. He’s got four months to “wander the halls” and, he says, make recommendations about changes in the agency. In his first day on the job, reports Hallenbeck, he met with central office staff to give them reassurance. But he’ll have to make some tough decisions in a hurry. Sort of like his former job as an emergency room doctor: get as much information as you can as quickly as you can, and then do what you have to do. 

Might be more blood on the floor in the not too distant future. And I suspect that when Dr. Chen isn’t wandering the halls, he’ll be facing the cameras and telling the people of Vermont something that sounds a lot like this: “These are challenging times but the Agency is up to the task, and the Shumlin Administration is giving us all the resources we need.”

Rah, rah, sis boom bah.