September 22, 2019
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Lawmakers: LePage gag order means we can’t tell if DHHS is doing its job

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton on Dec. 8, 2017, at a ceremony in Augusta.

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee say they can’t complete a review of the department they oversee because no one from the department would come talk to them about it.

Last Thursday’s House calendar included a letter, signed by co-chairs Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, and Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, stating that their committee “was unable to engage in direct dialogue with any members of the department,” despite all other committees having the opportunity to do so.

“After seeking permission from Gov. [Paul] LePage to allow DHHS Commissioner [Ricker] Hamilton’s attendance at the committee’s meeting … the committee was informed that no one from the department would be in attendance,” the letter reads.

The committee sent written questions to Hamilton in early February and received written responses a month later but wasn’t satisfied.

“All of the answers prompted further questions that could not be explored,” the letter reads.

These reviews are supposed to happen every eight years. The Government Evaluation Act requires that as part of the Legislature’s oversight responsibilities. The committee wrote that it hoped to address a number of issues the department itself identified as “emerging” in its report, including rural health care and long-term plans for patients to access health care, the need for workers in the health care sector, the child protection system, the opioid crisis, the status of Riverview Psychiatric Center’s federal certification and the accompanying funding, the number of crisis beds in Maine and plans to respond to public health threats.

The is the latest chapter in a long history of LePage blocking Cabinet members and executive branch officials from testifying to the Legislature. For years, LePage has said all questions for executive branches should be submitted in writing tho him personally, though there have been numerous examples of questions being sent and largely ignored. One committee that has voiced frustration about that is the Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee in its deliberations last year and in previous years about developing the state’s biennial budget.

LePage has been showing up to talk to committees, but only when he chooses. He went to the budget committee earlier this year to advocate for a student debt bond proposal, blasted individual members of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee for the committee’s written questions regarding the sale of timber from public lands, and showed up at at least one committee’s vetting interview of a judicial nominee.

The governor has often said he won’t subject his commissioners to partisan grilling by lawmakers. These meetings have at times included contentious exchanges and Hamilton participating in an open Q&A would undoubtedly result in that. With the Riverview issue simmering and an intense controversy brewing about how the state’s Child Protective Services system is operating in the wake of the recent tragic deaths of two young girls allegedly killed by their caregivers, there would likely be more of that.

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