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Legislative Committee OKs Probe Into DHHS Computer Error
04/10/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Lawmakers approved an investigation of the Maine Department of Health and Humans services. Members of the Legislature's government oversight committee want to know why they only recently learned about a computer problems that led to thousands of unauthorized Medicaid payments, even though managers within the Department had been aware of the issue for more than a year.

Lawmakers in both parties seem to agree that the legislature needs answers, and that they would like the so-called Office on Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability, or OPEGA, to look into the matter.

"I'm concerned MORE about the balance of power between the branches," said State Rep. Chuck Kruger (D-Thomaston.)

He said he wants to make sure the various branches of state government have the information they need to make sound policy.

"And the fact the executive branch and the legislative branch are in good standing and the legislative branch can trust what the executive branch says," Kruger said.

Kruger's comments point to what some characterize as a communications breakdown between the LePage administration and the Legislature's Appropriations Committee over a computer error that had allowed up to 25,000 ineligible Mainers to have access to Medicaid benefits. Democrats have claimed that DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew participated in a "cover-up" of the problem during deliberations on a budget that dropped many Mainers from state healthcare programs. Republicans have been less strident in their criticism, but have expressed concern over the internal operations at DHHS.

"The department knew back in 2010 that people were becoming ineligible for MaineCare but it wasn't being reported correctly through the computer system," said State Sen. Roger Katz (R-Augusta). He serves as co-chair of the Government Oversight committee, and as a member of the Appropriations Committee. He said he's less concerned about the technical reasons for the computer glitch that caused the problem and more focused on the communication breakdown at the state's largest agency.

"Why didn't that get communicated up through the chain of command within the department under the old administration and why didn't get it communicated correctly up through the chain of command in this administration," said Katz. "The important thing here is that we have to have good information that we can rely on, in order to make good budgeting decisions. And really now over two administrations, there have been problems with that."

State Sen. Joe Brannigan (D-Westbrook) said that while there were problems under previous administrations, he can't remember when he had a commissioner admit to being aware of problems in January, but not reporting them to the Legislature until a month later. Brannigan said when he chaired the Appropriations he could trust a commissioner's word.

"We got the straight scoop, right or wrong, we at least knew what we were into and I believe they didn't know that this time," Brannigan said. "And this request was to look at that and a lot of toher things that you saw, but they hovered around it and rep. Kruger was right on. We need to know what happened and can we trust the numbers. It's an expression to be made: Can we trust the numbers?"

Katz said the DHHS investigation will get under way next month and that lawmakers on the panel will be briefed on the results in July.

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