Dr. Sheila Pinette, the Cape Elizabeth internist who will take over as Maine’s top public health official beginning May 1, describes herself as conservative and opposed to abortion — though not overtly political.
In this role she will head up the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a complex division of the state Department of Health and Human Services that oversees infectious disease outbreaks, emergency medical response, vaccine administration, drinking water safety, poison prevention, nutrition education, chronic disease management, and the promotion of safe behavior and healthful lifestyles.
In a telephone interview on Friday, Pinette, 52, said she was raised a Democrat but has grown more conservative over time. She is a congregant at Saint Bartholomew’s Catholic Church in Cape Elizabeth, where she is active in religious education and as a Eucharistic minister. She identified herself as pro-life but commented only guardedly on hot-button public health issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and sex education and access to birth control in Maine schools.
“For myself, I do not believe in abortion,” the mother of five said. “But I don’t need to put that on other people. I believe we should educate families and let them decide what is right for them.”
By law, the Maine CDC is charged with supporting comprehensive sex education in Maine schools, including information about birth control and family planning. Comprehensive sex education rightfully belongs in Maine public schools, Pinette said, but must be presented appropriately to meet the needs of children in the earlier grades.
Pinette said she is “not a political animal” and does not wish to become embroiled in the overtly pro-life and conservative stances of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. She does not plan to testify on any of the several bills pending in the Legislature that would curtail access to abortion for Maine women, although she acknowledged that she may be asked to do so.
“Maine is basically a pro-life state, I think, “ she said, “and the administration will do what it’s going to do.”
“I am a conservative and proud of being a Catholic,” she said. While she feels it is important for children at Saint Bartholomew’s to learn about the religious traditions of the church, “we tolerate religious freedom,” she said. She said she does not believe her personal faith will affect her professional performance at the Maine CDC.
Pinette also confirmed that she does not accept MaineCare patients in her practice, saying the billing system is too convoluted and unreliable to justify the program’s low reimbursement rates. But she noted that she has a history of working with patients of all socioeconomic backgrounds and is committed to promoting quality health care for all Mainers.
Pinette worked as a physician assistant in Connecticut before moving to Maine in 1989 with her husband, physician and Aroostook County native Michael Pinette. In Portland, she worked with pregnant women in high-risk pregnancies. Her husband now serves as the director of the maternal-fetal medical program at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Sheila Pinette graduated from the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2000 and completed her medical residency in 2003. She currently runs her own internal medicine practice in Cape Elizabeth but will stop seeing patients when she assumes the leadership position at the Maine CDC.
Pinette said she has rarely traveled north of Augusta.
“The farthest north I’ve ever been is Bangor, and that was for my children’s diving meets,” she said. She said she looks forward to traveling throughout the state to become more familiar with public health challenges in different areas.
When she takes office, Pinette said, her first goal will be to get to know her staff and at least some of the approximately 400 people who work in various divisions of the Maine CDC. She said it will be a priority to strengthen the state’s eight-district public health system and the community partnerships that support public health initiatives within those districts.
She credited her predecessor, Dr. Dora Anne Mills, with many public health successes in Maine and said she hopes to build upon those successes. Among the projects she hopes to roll forward is Mills’ goal of seeing Maine achieve national accreditation for its public health system that will make the state more competitive for federal grants and other funding sources.
After serving 14 years as the head of the Maine CDC, Mills left her position late last year to become the medical director of the MaineCare program, but was fired by the LePage administration in February.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the age of Dr. Sheila Pinette, the new director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Pinette is 52 years old. Also, the story should have clarified that Pinette has cared for indigent populations in both Connecticut and Maine and that she stopped accepting MaineCare patients in part because she was unable to collect payment due to a problem with the state’s computer billing system