AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday defended himself and his administration against accusations of cronyism in hiring Gary Alexander, a controversial consultant, to study and make recommendations for Maine’s welfare system and potential Medicaid expansion.
LePage said he has met with Alexander just three times: One of those meetings took place in 2010, when LePage offered the Rhode Island conservative the job as Maine’s commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, which the governor said Alexander turned down for salary reasons.
LePage subsequently hired Mary Mayhew, a Democrat who lobbied for the Maine Hospital Association, as DHHS commissioner. Mayhew’s total compensation in 2012 — including salary and benefits — was $131,168, according to the state government payroll tracking website maineopengov.org.
LePage said Thursday that he also has met with Alexander twice since then; once in March and once more recently, after Alexander’s firm was hired on a nearly $1 million sole-source contract awarded by Mayhew in September.
“If that’s a ‘crony,’ what’s [Democratic Senate President] Justin Alfond? I see him once a week,” the governor said in an interview with State House reporters. “The total time I’ve spent with [Alexander] wouldn’t amount to 30 minutes.”
The governor said he admires the work Alexander has done in other states — specifically his success in winning a global Medicaid waiver in Rhode Island, which LePage has said would be a huge benefit for Maine. With the waiver, Medicaid funding is converted to a block grant, giving the state remarkable flexibility in administering a self-designed publicly funded health benefit for low-income residents.
LePage has often said federal regulations of Medicaid and other welfare programs were not suited to Maine’s needs.
“If the federal government were flexible, maybe we could expand [Medicaid],” he said. “But they’re inflexible. Gary Alexander experienced it and he understands what flexibility gets us. … There’s nobody better equipped to do it, because he’s done it. He’s the only one who’s done it. So I have a lot of faith in [Mayhew’s decision to award the contract to Alexander’s firm].”
LePage also reiterated that he was not involved in hiring The Alexander Group for Maine’s welfare and Medicaid expansion study. All sole-source contracts must go through the governor’s office for review, but that step is routinely conducted by policy staff, not the governor himself, said LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
LePage said that he was not concerned that Alexander had missed a Dec. 1 deadline to file an initial report with DHHS. A draft of that report was received Monday, Dec. 16, according to a DHHS spokesman, and is expected to be completed in early January.
“In business, everybody gets extensions,” he said.
He also told reporters that they would not have an opportunity to examine The Alexander Group’s reports until the administration had taken the time to process them internally.
“I want to look at it and I want to read it,” he said. “Once we give it to you folks, you’ll have a ton of questions, and we want to be able to answer them.”
The consulting firm recently completed a similar four-month study in Arkansas, where it recommended across-the-board reductions in spending on welfare and a plan to push state-sponsored health insurance recipients into the private marketplace. That state paid $220,000 for its report.
Democrats in Augusta have criticized the LePage administration for hiring Alexander, a former public welfare chief in both Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, who they say is a kindred spirit to LePage and will deliver a report based on ideology, not a detached analysis.
Alexander was the subject of an audit in Pennsylvania, conducted by an elected Democratic auditor, which said long-term mismanagement of that state’s home health care worker payroll service cost the state $7 million annually. Democrats also have blasted Alexander for overseeing a Pennsylvania public welfare department that saw nearly 80,000 children lose taxpayer-funded health care benefits.
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the governor’s defense of Alexander did little to change his assessment of the consulting firm.
“He has a pattern,” Alfond said. “I think the governor hired him because of that pattern and the recommendations he makes to states on their Medicaid program. I stand by our concern of bringing in someone who has a pattern of making it harder for people to get services they are eligible for and need.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.