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Want to see the obesity report you paid for? Fat chance!

Darren Fishell | BDN
Darren Fishell | BDN
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices on State Street in Augusta are shown on Dec. 1, 2017.
By Matthew Stone, BDN Staff
Updated:

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services isn’t releasing a report on state public health efforts that the agency commissioned, paid for with public funds and has had in its possession since March.

The department hasn’t allowed the report’s author to disseminate copies to the people whom she interviewed in assembling the report. And in response to a Dec. 5 Freedom of Access Act request for the report from the BDN, DHHS’ top lawyer estimated that “a response will be provided” within three months.

A Maine DHHS spokeswoman, Emily Spencer, said the report is “going through our normal review process.”

“We’ve had some transitions within the Department this year, so some things that were already in the process or near the end needed to be reviewed by some of our new team members,” she wrote in an email. “I expect the review process to be completed soon.”

Michelle Mitchell, executive director of Partnerships for Health, the Augusta firm that produced the evaluation report and has produced others for the state, said, “This is not a normal timeframe.”

The report is an evaluation of regional efforts over the past 16 years to prevent tobacco use and obesity. Much of the work in that time was carried out by 27 regional public health coalitions known as Healthy Maine Partnerships, which included hospitals, local governments, schools and others. Gov. Paul LePage’s administration dissolved those coalitions last year after previously reducing funding for their work.

The evaluation report reflects insights from interviews of 36 people who worked with the Healthy Maine Partnerships, Mitchell said. It identifies a number of core principles that emerged from the partnerships’ work over more than a decade that could guide future local efforts in Maine to improve the public’s health, she said.

“The public health infrastructure is in transition, where we’ve moved from one model to another,” Mitchell said. “I think there’s a lot of merit in the report, to capture the principles that came from the previous infrastructure. Those principles are like a guide in the new infrastructure.”

Mitchell said her firm began work on the evaluation report in July 2016, conducted more than 50 hours of interviews, then submitted the report to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention — a division of Maine DHHS — in March.

When conducting interviews, Mitchell informed interviewees that they would have access to the final evaluation. However, she recently told interviewees that she didn’t have clearance from Maine DHHS to disseminate the report.

“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the Department of Health and Human Services has decided to retain the report for internal use only and, accordingly, PFH is not able to fulfill our commitment to send the report to you,” Mitchell wrote this fall in a letter to interview participants. “We continue to be hopeful that the report will be approved for release in the future.”

Partnerships for Health produced the evaluation under a two-year, $438,000-per-year contract with the Maine CDC that paid for multiple evaluations of programs under the state’s Prevention Services Initiative. The state has since reduced the contract to $288,000 per year. It’s funded with legal settlement money the state receives every year from tobacco companies.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the last name of Partnerships for Health Executive Director Michelle Mitchell.

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