AUGUSTA, Maine — House and Senate leaders put off a Portland lawmaker’s plea for an independent investigation of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Legislative Council on Thursday afternoon tabled the request by Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, for an audit of DHHS by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.
Republicans hold a majority on the council, which is made up of leaders in the House and Senate. Brannigan said the 6-4 party-line vote to delay a decision so close to the end of the legislative session effectively killed his request.
“They didn’t want to say no to a request like that,” Brannigan said of the vote to table the request. “They just ducked.”
House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, called Brannigan’s move “a well orchestrated media event aimed at fanning partisan flames.”
Brannigan sought to have the Legislature weigh in on the DHHS audit by submitting a bill requiring the investigation. He needed the Legislative Council to green-light the legislation because the deadline to submit a bill for this session has passed.
The council could still take up Brannigan’s request at a later meeting, though the session is quickly approaching its mid-April conclusion.
“The people of Maine [fully] expect transparency,” Assistant Democratic Leader Justin Alfond of Portland, a member of the Legislative Council, said in a statement. “It is disappointing that Republican lawmakers don’t share the same sense of urgency.”
Brannigan doesn’t need a bill to request that OPEGA investigate DHHS, but he said he has little hope that the busy office can consider the audit before the end of the session.
“I think it’s pretty futile,” he said.
Approval from the Legislative Council would have given his request more clout, Brannigan said.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Republican leadership on the council, Brannigan highlighted “substantial shortcomings” within the department.
He cited a January complaint from an unnamed MaineCare provider who had waited more than a year for payments and couldn’t get questions answered by a DHHS employee.
Brannigan also faulted the department for failing to respond to requests for data about its operations, leading to lingering doubts about the extent of the department’s budget shortfall and continued uncertainty about the impact of budget cuts on individual hospitals.
“The audit should address the department’s internal operations and communications with providers and the public,” Brannigan’s letter states. “The independent audit should contact providers and stakeholders to understand the extent and diversity of the problems. The report should recommend measures that will ‘cure’ the problems.”
Brannigan’s request came a day after a fellow Democrat accused the LePage administration of covering up financial problems at the agency.
Democrats have criticized DHHS for withholding information about a computer problem that led the department’s MaineCare program to pay for benefits for up to 19,000 people after they lost eligibility.
“Senator Brannigan should know better than to use highly inflammatory terms like ‘cover-up’ when referring to the recent computer problems at DHHS, particularly when the Legislature is in the process of trying to find the root of the system’s difficulties that began, and went unreported, during the previous administration,” Nutting said in a statement.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, called Brannigan’s actions a “stunt,” saying in a statement that the “Government Oversight Committee and the staff at OPEGA has proven themselves capable on what should be investigated. If they believe any part of DHHS deserves investigation, they will call for it.”
On Wednesday, state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider of Orono accused DHHS and Commissioner Mary Mayhew of providing bad information to the Appropriations Committee as it weighed painful cuts to MaineCare during recent budget negotiations.
Mayhew has said she should have alerted lawmakers sooner to the MaineCare computer problem. Its scope didn’t become clear to her until after budget talks had wrapped up, she has said.
An independent review of DHHS prompted by the erroneous MaineCare payments is already under way, led by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services with support from the office of the state controller, Mayhew said in a statement Thursday.
“The decision whether OPEGA gets involved is not ours to make,” she said. “We welcome their investigation provided the timing is such that it does not take away from the staffing resources currently dedicated to resolving system issues and conducting critical financial analysis.”