On Thursday, 19 job postings showed up on a state website advertising openings in the state’s public health nursing program.
That’s a state program that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has made special efforts to decimate, even as lawmakers continued to fund most of the program’s 50 nursing positions.
When LePage took office, the state employed a corps of about 50 public health nurses who conducted home visits with new mothers with health risks, worked on the containment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, and responded to public health emergencies such as botulism and influenza outbreaks.
But the LePage administration tried to squeeze the life out of the program. As Maine’s opioid addiction crisis accelerated, the administration dismantled a key piece of the state’s public health infrastructure. (Public health nurses specialize in working with the moms of drug-affected newborns.)
The administration left positions vacant as nurses left the program. Staff members of then-Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew barred the then-public health nursing director from emailing his staff without clearance from above, and they ordered that the program withdraw its brochure from circulation so word about the services would get out to fewer people who might need them. As more positions became vacant, nurses from Aroostook County routinely had to travel to Portland and Lewiston to monitor treatment of clients at risk of developing active — and highly contagious — tuberculosis.
Today, fewer than 20 nurses are on the ground visiting clients, although lawmakers have set aside funding for more than 40 nurse positions — and although the Legislature last year passed a law requiring that the LePage administration fill the vacant positions.
That’s why the job postings that showed up Thursday are noteworthy.
The postings on the website of the State of Maine Bureau of Human Resources showed up nearly a month after lawyers for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services told the Kennebec County Superior Court, in response to a lawsuit, that the agency would “take prompt action” to fill dozens of nursing openings the state has been required to fill but hasn’t.
They came more than six weeks after the legislative sponsor of the public health nursing law and two nurses filed that lawsuit to compel DHHS to follow the clearly worded state law that passed last year with support from both parties — enough support to override a veto from LePage.
And they came more than six months after the hiring deadline set in that state law passed.
With the LePage administration in power, a law isn’t enough to compel action. But a lawsuit appeared to be enough to compel the job postings.
Still, while the postings are an encouraging development, they don’t yet signal that DHHS is acting in good faith and complying with the law. Indeed, two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the department’s noncompliance responded to job postings late last year and earlier this year, had job interviews and were told their services were needed, but then were not hired.
Just because the LePage administration has posted a job opening doesn’t mean it will follow through and hire someone — even if that hiring is compelled by state law.
The lawsuit before the Kennebec County Superior Court is an effort to compel DHHS to hire the nurses it’s required to hire. But it also seeks a special auditor to ensure compliance with the law and any court order. It’s times like these when we don’t know whether DHHS is acting in good faith that a special auditor would prove helpful.
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