A superior court judge has ended a lawsuit a state senator brought against the state a year ago after then-Gov. Paul LePage’s administration missed a legal deadline to bring Maine’s public health nursing program back to full staffing.
In an 11-page ruling, Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy found the state Department of Health and Human Services is now “substantially complying” with a 2017 law that required the agency to restore a public health program the LePage administration largely dismantled during its eight years in office. While Murphy’s ruling ended the lawsuit, the judge rejected arguments lawyers for the state made earlier this year claiming the court had no role to play in overseeing a state agency’s hiring practices.
State Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, sponsored the 2017 law and was one of three plaintiffs who sued the state last summer after hiring stalled despite the requirements outlined in state law.
But hiring has accelerated since Gov. Janet Mills took office. The public health nursing program has now filled 38 of 53 positions, DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said. Twenty-nine of those staffers are public health nurses visiting patients throughout the state, she said. Staffing had dwindled to fewer than 15 nurses in late 2017.
The Mills administration has also expanded eligibility for at-home visits from public health nurses. Earlier this week, state health officials said that all pregnant women and new mothers were now eligible for those visits that previously were limited to women on Medicaid and uninsured women with medical problems. State health officials also said in a memo to the state’s birthing hospitals that they were reviewing the state’s system for referring women to public health nurses that health care providers have called opaque and unreliable.
“Even if it had not previously made appropriate efforts to hire nurses, the Department has now taken substantial steps toward filling all [public health nursing] vacancies,” Murphy wrote in her ruling, issued late last month.
Public health nurses visit at-risk mothers and their infants in their homes, provide school nurse services in rural schools without their own nurses, work to contain infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, and assist in responses to public health emergencies.
Carson on Thursday said he would have preferred to have a court ruling soon after he filed the lawsuit last summer while an “administration that did not demonstrate good faith” in hiring was still in office.
Given hiring progress since Mills took office in January, Carson said there is no need to appeal Murphy’s ruling.
“It was very plain that after the governor [LePage] and [former DHHS Commissioner] Ricker Hamilton ordered the shutting down of advertising and hiring, that the LePage administration was in serious violation of the law,” Carson said. “That would have been the time for the court to act.”
Carson’s lawsuit asked the court to order the state to bring the public health nursing program to full staffing and to appoint a special auditor to ensure the state’s compliance.
“We are pleased to continue rebuilding the public health nursing program as this case comes to a close,” Farwell said Thursday. “Our recruiting effort remains a top priority in the face of a statewide nursing shortage, with our recent hires ranging from Portland to Caribou.”
In response to Caron’s lawsuit last summer, lawyers for the state said DHHS intended to comply with the 2017 law and hire nurses. Later, after Mills took office, the state’s lawyers asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that DHHS was already complying with the law and that its hiring practices weren’t subject to court oversight.
Even in putting an end to the lawsuit, Murphy dismissed the state’s argument that its hiring practices weren’t subject to court oversight.