Gov. Shumlin fires a top member of his cabinet - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Gov. Shumlin fires a top member of his cabinet

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Doug Racine Doug Racine
Dr. Harry Chen Dr. Harry Chen

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has removed his top manager tasked with overseeing Vermont's health reforms and the protection of children. WCAX broke the news of the departure of Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine Tuesday.

The Agency of Human Services is massive, including disability and aging services, health and social supports, as well as corrections among its departments. Its budget eats nearly half of the state's General Fund. Significant problems persist with Vermont Health Connect while two toddler deaths tarnish the reputation of the Department for Children and Families. The governor says it's the right time to make a change.

Starting Tuesday, Vermont Health Commissioner Harry Chen will take over atop the Agency of Human Services. The governor's staff asked former Secretary Doug Racine to step down Monday. Racine oversaw much maligned health reform efforts and child protection in his role leading Vermont's largest agency.

"I felt that it was time for a different kind of leadership. And I'm grateful to Sec. Racine for his service and I'm grateful to have someone as capable as Harry Chen to take over as secretary," said Shumlin, D-Vermont.

The state's online health exchange, Vermont Health Connect, still has plenty of bugs, even as the one-year anniversary and next open enrollment period draw near.

The Legislature hasn't been in session since May, but select lawmakers continue to look into the Department for Children and Families. Some worry a lack of resources and questionable regulations may be partially responsible the deaths of two toddlers earlier this year. Lawmakers don't think the management change alone will solve ongoing problems.

"I think this is really what you would call the perfect storm," said Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor County. "The fact that these things all happened at one time I think had something to do with this."

"To equate the change in leadership with DCF and the tragic child deaths is to look for a simple answer," said Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington.

"I've often said I only need two votes to do this job; one is the governor's and one is mine. I've lost the governor's vote," Racine said.

Racine, who lost to Shumlin by 203 votes in the 2010 Democratic primary, told us it stunned him when he received the news Monday. He says the governor's chief of staff cited a desired change in leadership style, not shortcomings with Health Connect or DCF.

"Sometimes somebody has to pay the price for it," Racine said. "Doesn't mean they hold me personally responsible, but we're dealing in a political environment. And in politics, we've seen it over and over again; somebody has to pay a price."

"If the change had to happen, it needed to happen now before November," Democratic Political Analyst Steve Terry said.

Terry worked under previous administrations. He says the move is likely meant to ensure the road to single-payer doesn't encounter road blocks.

"This is a job that needs operational experience now, it's not as much of a policy job," Terry said.

Terry says Chen's background as an ER doctor leaves him with the experience and temperament to deal with crises, especially those surrounding health reform.

The change comes just after Racine submitted potential cuts to meet the governor's call for a 4 percent reduction in general fund spending across agencies. Exactly what gets cut is likely to be determined Monday, and it will be incoming Secretary Chen's job to see them through. The governor says Chen is expected to lead the agency until the end of the year. The search is on now for a permanent replacement.

There is a lot of talk right now about splitting the Department for Children and Families and creating a separate child protection division. Doug Racine tells me the state is actually seeing benefits since it consolidated child protection and other social services into a single Department for Children and Families. But top lawmakers and the governor have been vocal about the potential benefits of separating those functions out, indicating the agency is just too big.

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