March 19, 2019
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Democrats turn up the heat on DHHS

For the casual observer, government can get the feel of an ever-lasting partisan slap fight. It’s attack, counter-attack. Rinse, wash and repeat.

But not every sharp point is for drama’s sake or intended solely to score political points.

That was the case when Rep. Dawn Hill, D-York, smelled something rotten at the Maine Turnpike Authority and helped to launch a nonpartisan investigation that eventually brought down a long-serving executive director.

And it could very well be the case as Democrats have called for an independent investigation into a serious computer error within the Department of Health and Human Services and the department’s slow response to the problem.

The Associated Press reported it this way: “Using rhetoric rarely heard in the Maine State House, Democrats accused the Republican administration of lying and covering up information about malfunctioning human services computers that resulted in 19,000 people erroneously receiving MaineCare.”

The language was tough. But so is the issue.

Veteran Sen. Joe Brannigan, a Portland Democrat and my state senator, led the charge.

“It’s time for the administration to, first, take responsibility for their mismanagement and second, and most importantly, take responsibility for willfully misleading lawmakers,” said Brannigan, the ranking member on the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.

While outside groups, including the Maine Can Do Better Coalition, which I work with, have called for an investigation of the error, lawmakers have been reluctant to take a similar stand until this week.

Now, it appears that an investigation might actually occur. And that’s a good thing. It’s certainly called for.

As of today, we have only a general outline of what has happened.

According to Commissioner Mary Mayhew, a problem between two DHHS computer systems began sometime in late 2010 or early 2011 and continued for all of last year.

The problem allowed people who were no longer eligible for MaineCare to continue to receive services. While there appears to be significant questions about the extent of the problem, the department now says it has contributed to a budget shortfall at DHHS that has required massive cuts and elimination of services.

While there are some indications that DHHS knew about the computer problem as early as the summer of 2011, the issue was never reported to the Legislature.

According to Mayhew, she learned of the problem in January, but waited until weeks after an ideologically driven budget was passed by the Legislature before publicly admitting the error and its effect on the department.

That’s where things stand today, but there are still questions that haven’t been answered and that an investigation might clear up.

Even though his department, at some level, was aware that there were significant problems with its budget numbers, the LePage administration relentlessly pushed for a dangerous DHHS budget that cost 14,000 people access to health insurance and reduced services to many more. Legislators were pushed into making terrible decisions without the benefit of all the information available.

Did the administration purposefully hide the information about the error so it could successfully push for the DHHS budget the governor really wanted — financial troubles or not? Or was communication so bad within the department and between the department and the governor’s office that the problem slipped through the cracks?

We don’t know the answer, but we certainly should.

There was some talk that Democrats in the Legislature were going to call for Mayhew’s resignation. Like her policies or not, that would have been the wrong move at this point.

Both the Legislature and the public — and dare I say it, perhaps even the governor — need to have a better idea of what happened, of who knew what and when before they can legitimately call for someone’s head.

Republicans quickly tried to brand Tuesday’s events as nothing more than political theater, while launching a personal attack on Brannigan’s character. Hopefully, the GOP decoy won’t fool anyone.

The best way forward in this whole mess is to understand exactly what went wrong, and then work to make sure the same kind of thing doesn’t happen again.

We need to know what happened. Was there a cover-up? Did someone underestimate the size and scope of the problem? Was it a case of human error? Was there malicious intent?

With an investigation, we might find out.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Can Do Better. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

Correction: An early version of this story requires correction. Portland Sen. Joe Brannigan is ranking member of the Legislature's Insurance and Financial Services Committee, not Health and Human Services Committee.

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