Part-timer's $489 million finding pays off Mass. deficit

June 08, 1991|By Steve Stecklow | Steve Stecklow,Knight-Ridder News Service

BOSTON -- The last governor couldn't do it. The new governor appeared unable to do it. And the state's 200 legislators had all but given up.

But thanks to the conscientious efforts of a low-ranking part-time employee in the state's Department of Public Welfare, Massachusetts has a balanced budget.

Kathleen Betts, 38, who earns $22,500 a year as a three-day-a-week department director, wrote in a memo to her boss in February that she had found a new federal regulation that she believed might qualify the state for more Medicaid assistance from Washington.

As a result of her discovery, Massachusetts officials announced this week that the federal government had agreed to give the financially ailing commonwealth a whopping $489 million.

The one-time windfall was enough to wipe out a $460 million deficit and avert a series of drastic cuts, including a threatened shutdown of state government in the last week of June.

Meanwhile, Ms. Betts, a self-described "longtime bureaucrat" who has worked for the Public Welfare Department for 10 years, became an instant celebrity after receiving a public thanks and the promise of a $10,000 bonus from Gov. William F. Weld.

One state agency sent her a bouquet of flowers. The town of Marblehead shipped her 30 pounds of lobsters, which she promptly donated to a shelter for the homeless.

"I've had to take my phone off the hook at home because the calls are non-stop," Ms. Betts said yesterday while eating a turkey sandwich in her small office in downtown Boston.

She said that finding ways to increase federal assistance was just part of her job. But she admitted that even she was shocked when she learned that the regulation she uncovered -- a recently enacted law that allows states that pay for treating uninsured DTC hospital patients to receive matching federal funds -- had proved so valuable for Massachusetts.

"After a cursory review, I thought it would be maybe $80 million," she said.

Ms. Betts, who works part-time so she can spend more time at home with her two children, ages 2 and 9, told a reporter earlier this week that her discovery "shows the rest of the world that part-time mothers can do both, and when I am at work I work very hard."

She credited her superiors with acting quickly on her memo and working hard to win the state the bonanza.

While she said she was pleased with all the attention she has been receiving, she noted that all too often, state employees receive too little credit for their work. "Other people have done great things before," she said.

"Unfortunately, when a dollar value is associated with it, it receives instant press."

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