It was the kind of career PR disaster that could have sunk any public official. Amazing to tell, Finucane had the wiles to survive.
He did this with unusual frank humility; for instance, he called me at home -- quite unexpectedly -- as he must have called others who were reporting the fiasco. He explained with patience and candor just what, in his view, had gone wrong. He neither groveled nor shifted blame. He said he’d fix the problem. He was convincing. It was a brilliant move.
But such openness could only work when the problem could be solved. This time Finucane remedied the situation; he disciplined and shifted staff. He oversaw the introduction of the current letter-grade enforcement system (most major California counties already had one). But that was probably the last time he ever completely solved a major DHS dilemma. I received no more calls.
After this, Finucane‘s board appearances got more embarrassing. While he reduced expenditures and created successful partnerships with private, nonprofit clinics, he wasn’t able to meet his own cost-cut projections. Some of the county‘s own major clinics were still underused. Washington, after allowing -- over five years -- the DHS $1.2 billion in Medicare waivers for clinical treatment, was growing impatient, even under the Clinton presidency.
The board members kept nailing Finucane for failing to meet objectives. But they had their own overpriced health-care agendas that he could not allay: Gloria Molina wanted a much larger version of County USC; Mike Antonovich wanted to keep the costly and underused High Desert Hospital; Yvonne Brathwaite Burke protected the costly, disaster-ridden and ill-reputed KingDrew medical complex. Now Finucane leaves behind a projected $884 million deficit over the next five years. But at least he takes with him something his predecessor, Bob Gates, did not: his health. Gates, we may recall, retired after he collapsed during a board member’s harangue at a public meeting. He was hospitalized for several days and rumored to have suffered a stroke.
It may be impossible to make the DHS work in a post--Proposition 13 county with an ever-swelling near-indigent population. Certainly, it is going to be a lot harder under the anti-public-sector Bush administration. But the toughest problems Finucane‘s $240,000-a-year-plus successor will face won’t come from Washington. They‘ll come, as they always have, from his own employers on the eighth floor of the Hall of Administration. As one county employee put it, “Finucane’s biggest mistake was that when the board members originally told him to go ahead and do what was right, no matter what they‘d say later, he believed them.”