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Partisan Barbs Fly Amid Accusations of a Republican Cover-Up Over DHHS Computer Problem
03/27/2012   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Partisan tensions about the ongoing state budget shortfall and a major computer glitch at the Department of Health and Human Services prompted charges and counter charges by Democrats and Republicans at the State House today. Democrats reiterated an accusation they first made last week that DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew engaged in a "cover up" of budget figures she knew to be faulty. Republicans are standing by the Commissioner and said they intend to investigate what went wrong with the computer system in a non-partisan way.

Flanked at a news conference by more than two-dozen Democratic lawmakers State Senator Joseph Brannigan said it was time for the LePage administration to take responsibility and be held accountable for what he called "the DHHS coverup."

"I use the word 'cover up' and I know people don't like that but the fact is someone knew information that should have been given to all of the people on Appropriations, all the people who were trying to make a decision about very, very difficult things, knew about that and did not say anything until the first part of the budget was passed by many of us," Brannigan said.

The former chair of Appropriations, Brannigan suggested that Commissioner Mayhew withheld information about a computer glitch because she and Gov. LePage wanted to ensure that the budget was passed. The glitch may have resulted in as many as 19,000 Mainers who were ineligible for MaineCare to access benefits. But Representative Meredith Strang Burgess (R-Cumberland), co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said it's still not clear exactly whether any of those 19,000 people did. And she said Mayhew has been up front in addressing computer problems that date back to the previous administration. In fact, she said the Baldacci Administration provided a list of about 1,600 computer problems to Commissioner Mayhew when she took over DHHS last year.

"She actually put, almost within 30 days of her being in her new job, actually took action to hold people accountable to fixing this computer system. So from the get-go Commissioner Mayhew has been very aggressive at making sure that everybody involved in this computer system realized it needed to work," said Strang Burgess.

Democrats question how they are supposed to be able to make the best decisions for the people of the state without the right facts. They point out that it wasn't until after the first part of the budget was passed, one that originally proposed deep cuts to the poor and the elderly, that the true extent of the computer glitch was revealed. They say they want to know who knew what and when. Last week, Brannigan himself asked for an investigation by the independent state government oversight committee known as OPEGA. But the request was tabled by Republican legislative leaders.

"It is disappointing that the Republican lawmakers didn't share the sense of urgency, maybe they did, and it's worse that lawmakers are left trying to untangle this mess while the governor is on Spring break in Jamaica," Brannigan said.

Republicans said they are disappointed in what they regard as a partisan and personal attack against a person with one of the most difficult jobs in state government. They called the Democrats' news conference a "disturbing" distraction. Shortly afterward the Maine Republican Party called on Senator Brannigan to release personal financial information about the money he received through DHHS as the former executive director of a Portland group home for the mentally ill. Republican Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta), co-chair of OPEGA, says throwing around words like "cover up" and "lying" is not helpful to the work at hand. And he says there will be an investigation.

"It's in everybody's interest to figure out what happened here. It's a problem that spans several years and two different administrations and we ought to figure out why there was this lack of human communication," Katz said. "It's not a computer problem, this lack of human communication, over a couple of different administrations, to find out what happened so that it won't happen again."

Democratic Senator Justin Alfond of Portland called that "major progress".

"Because before today we had no idea that we had their support and that's terriffic," Alfond said.

OPEGA will formally take up Sen. Brannigan's request for an investigation on Friday. Sen. Katz says he would be surprised if the request is not unanimously endorsed by members of his committee.

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