AUGUSTA, Maine — The final portion of a controversial five-part study of the state’s welfare system that’s costing Maine taxpayers $925,200 is due Thursday but, according to state officials, only the first part of the study — due Dec. 1 — has been turned in.
Maine has paid the Rhode Island-based Alexander Group more than half of the contract’s value, or $501,760.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage and top officials within the Department of Health and Human Services have come under fire for authorizing the no-bid contract with the consulting firm, headed by Gary Alexander, a former public welfare commissioner in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
An effort by the Democratic-led Legislature to revoke the contract failed last month.
“To my knowledge, just the report we released in January has been delivered thus far,” John Martins, a DHHS spokesman, wrote in an email message Monday.
Under the terms of the contract that report — the first of five Alexander was to deliver — was due on Dec. 1, 2013. The other portions were due as follows: two on Dec. 20, one on March 15 and the last on May 15.
The report due Dec. 1 was delivered to DHHS on Dec. 16, but was withheld from the public for more than three weeks while LePage reviewed its contents.
The document, which was released by DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew during a Jan. 10 news conference, examined the possible impact of an expansion of the state’s Medicaid system. Alexander attended that presentation.
Mayhew has said the state is to blame, and not Alexander, for the delay because its antiquated computer systems are not able to easily share the data consultants need to do their work.
During an April 1 meeting with the Sun Journal’s editorial board, Mayhew said, “We own a lot of the delay.”
She also said “we’re working with them” to sort out the computer struggles and expected to have something delivered in a couple of weeks.
State officials have since indefinitely suspended all of the Alexander report “target” due dates. Under the terms of the contract the state can withhold 40 percent payment to the company until it receives all portions of the study.
The contract, which LePage’s office authorized, became a lightning rod in the Legislature as lawmakers debated whether to accept new federal funding to expand the state’s Medicaid program to about 70,000 more people.
LePage opposed expansion while Democratic lawmakers charged the study he authorized would amount to little more than a political document supporting his position.
The report suggests the cost of expanding health care to thousands more low-income Mainers would eventually cost the state nearly $1 billion over a 10-year period, a conclusion that Democrats have called into question.
In his veto message for LD 1794, the bill drafted to cancel the Alexander contract, LePage wrote that Alexander was “uniquely qualified” because, while at the helm of Rhode Island’s health and human services department, he was able to negotiate and obtain a so-called “global waiver” for that state’s Medicaid program with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“I frankly do not care whether the Legislature agrees with how the Alexander Group advises this administration,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “Maybe next the Legislature will hire or fire my staff in the Governor’s Office — should I be required to retain only Democrats to advise me?”
The Legislature sustained the governor’s veto.
Studying state government
LePage has consistently supported his decision to contract with Alexander to study MaineCare expansion, but hasn’t been supportive of other studies proposed by the Legislature. He vetoed several legislative resolves that would have required various state agencies to conduct studies, or set up a task force to study an issue.
The governor often cited the unnecessary and unfunded mandates studies create, and said the studies usually fail to lead to meaningful legislation.
One bill vetoed by LePage, LD 1829, authored by state Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, would have required DHHS to report on the results of its welfare fraud and abuse investigations each year to the Legislature.
Under the bill, the department would report on the cost of investigations and the status of cases referred for prosecution, as well as file a report of department efforts to recover overpayments to vendors or contractors.
“The requested report would require extensive coordination between programs and technology systems, requiring additional resources,” LePage wrote in his veto message. “The department clearly explained to the committee that approximately $45,000 in state funding (and additional federal matching funds) would be needed for IT upgrades and that a limited period position for one year would be needed to coordinate and establish the report. This cannot be done ‘within existing resources,’ as the bill outlines.”
Gattine pointed out that LePage authorized the expenditure of nearly $1 million on the Alexander study but then said a study that may have been even more valuable to the state “was essentially too expensive for them to pull it together.”
On Monday, Gattine said, “I’m not holding out any hope that there’s going to be any useful information coming out of the Alexander Group.”
And he criticized DHHS payments made on time according to the contract even though the consultant had not met any of the contracted deadlines to deliver his reports.
“If you look at the contract, they get a monthly amount without any tie to deliverables and that is just not a good way to look after taxpayer money,” Gattine said.
State Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, also on Monday criticized the handling of payments.
“You just cannot afford to pay it forward like that while only getting one small part, and a questionable part at that, of what you contracted for,” Farnsworth said.
“It’s really ignoring all good business practice despite [LePage’s] claim to the opposite, it just violates the public trust and is a waste of taxpayer money.”
Intense interest in report
In early January, after the state acknowledged the Alexander Group had turned in the first part of its study, LePage refused to release the document to the public, saying it would be made public only after his review.
On Jan. 8, Maine’s Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills issued a letter urging LePage to follow the state’s open records law and release the document, which the contract specifically defined as a public record.
“While public statements indicate that the delay is due to your need to review, analyze and finalize the report, such a rationale for delay does not exist in statute,” Mills wrote. She further noted, “Reliance on such troublesome criteria could result in a court finding that you have acted in bad faith in resisting disclosure, with the attendant legal consequences of such a finding.
“As chief law enforcement officer for the state of Maine and chief adviser on Freedom of Access issues, I must insist you release this report to all who request it immediately,” Mills wrote.
LePage responded during a news conference the same day by saying, “Tell her to sue me,” regarding the attorney general’s request LePage follow the law.
In January, through the Maine Freedom of Access Act, the Sun Journal requested a month’s worth of communications between LePage’s office and DHHS related to the Alexander Group and the MaineCare expansion study. The documents were released to the newspaper more than three months later, on May 9.
The messages indicate the governor’s office and DHHS were feeling the pressure of public scrutiny about the cost, scope and release of the report.
At one point, LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, expressed concern to Martins and Mayhew over the way DHHS was handling the media around the Alexander Group report and contract.
“This story is killing us in the media, and we are not responding, which is not helpful,” Bennett wrote in a message to Martins nine days after the first “target date” had passed on Dec. 10, asking for “talking points” on the Alexander Group’s work.
Bennett seemed particularly concerned about a question regarding how well Alexander’s expertise had been vetted prior to being awarded the contract, and later suggested the administration develop a strategy for releasing the report.
Mayhew wrote back, saying that DHHS had — on several occasions — addressed questions about the Alexander Group and its contract with the state.
“As for the vetting, I’m happy to discuss in person,” Mayhew wrote to Bennett.