Democrats accuse LePage administration of ‘breach of trust’ on DHHS errors

Posted March 21, 2012, at 6:12 p.m.
Elizabeth Schneider
Elizabeth Schneider

AUGUSTA, Maine — State Sen. Elizabeth Schneider on Wednesday accused the LePage administration of covering up financial problems at the Department of Health and Human Services and committing a “breach of trust” with lawmakers for not alerting them sooner.

Schneider’s words came during debate on the Senate floor over LD 1870, a minor supplemental budget bill not directly related to problems at DHHS.

But the Orono Democrat used her time to levy criticism at the department and its commissioner, Mary Mayhew, for providing bad information to the Appropriations Committee during recent budget negotiations.

“There is absolutely a cover-up that has occurred,” Schneider said. “I don’t see how going forward we can trust the information we’re being given, at least by the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We made decisions in the dark. I hope as a body that we will look into this.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, defended Mayhew on the Senate floor for her hard work and said lawmakers shouldn’t rush to judgment before all the facts are laid out.

Lawmakers spent several weeks in January and February poring through the details of a proposed $220 million budget by Gov. Paul LePage that attempted to address a shortfall in DHHS.

The initial budget proposal contained a number of cuts to MaineCare services, including the elimination of an estimated 65,000 people from eligibility.

The Appropriations Committee eventually rewrote the governor’s budget proposal and the House and Senate passed a bill last month that addressed the shortfall just for the remainder of fiscal year 2012.

Shortly after the 2012 supplemental budget passed, though, Mayhew informed lawmakers of a problem she said she knew about while the budget was being discussed.

A computer error within the MaineCare program had led the state to continue paying medical bills for some beneficiaries after they became ineligible for the program. DHHS is trying to attach a dollar figure to the bad payments made over the last year and a half, but it’s likely the state will have to repay the federal government. Two-thirds of MaineCare’s funding come from the feds.

Mayhew has told lawmakers she plans to get to the bottom of the computer glitch and is tentatively scheduled to appear before the Appropriations Committee on Friday to update its members.

On Wednesday, Mayhew took the high road in responding to the criticism.

“The challenges of multi-faceted data systems have long been associated with this Department and I am committed to working with the Legislature to resolve these issues,” she said in a statement. “I am aware of the critical need for systems that produce accurate and reliable data to guide decision-making.

“Our organization is large and our day-to-day world is complex. Potential problems arise with regularity and are resolved continuously. I plan to do this work in a way that continues to reflect a high level of professionalism, transparency, personal accountability, courtesy and respect.”

The Legislature still has to deal with an estimated $85 million to $90 million DHHS shortfall for 2013, and some lawmakers are wondering how that’s possible given the department’s recent track record.

With a statutory adjournment date of April 18 approaching, it’s likely the Legislature will adjourn next month but then reconvene later this spring to deal with the DHHS supplemental budget for 2013.

Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, a longtime lawmaker, said he believes the Appropriations Committee was “badly informed” by the administration during the budget negotiations and said he’s never seen budgets done that way.

“I’ve complained from the beginning that this budget is being done in pieces. I can’t remember when we’ve ever done this in the past; can’t even keep track of how many pieces of the budget there are or that we’re being asked to vote for,” he said.

Even during the 115th Legislature, when state government shut down briefly because of a budget standoff between Democrats and Republicans, Brannigan said the budget that eventually passed was a whole budget.

“We didn’t do it in pieces,” he said. “We should see the whole picture.”

LePage, though, has been clear that he wants to deal with the DHHS shortfall separately, and he hasn’t been shy about criticizing Democrats over their role in the process. Earlier this year, the governor accused Democrats of stalling and obstructing.

In light of the DHHS problems, Democrats now are saying they were right to put the brakes on the governor’s budget.

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