Sunday, December 8, 2013
AUGUSTA -- Questioning why lawmakers weren't told sooner about costly computer problems in the Department of Health and Human Services, a legislative panel voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize an investigation of the department.
The Government Oversight Committee directed the state's watchdog office to find out why lawmakers didn't learn until March that, because of the computer error, MaineCare health insurance benefits were paid for 19,000 people who were no longer eligible to receive them. Since then, 5,300 more people have been found to have received benefits erroneously in recent months.
The timing of the disclosure is important because lawmakers voted in February to cut benefits for about 14,000 MaineCare recipients based on budget numbers provided by the DHHS. It wasn't until March that Commissioner Mary Mayhew told lawmakers about the problem, although she knew about it in January.
Sen. Joe Brannigan, D-Portland, requested the investigation. In a letter to the Government Oversight Committee, he said the DHHS knew it had given faulty budget figures to legislators when they were working to pass an emergency budget to help close a $121 million shortfall in the department.
He said after Tuesday's committee vote that he's satisfied with the decision to authorize an investigation.
Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, a committee member, said lawmakers must be reassured that the information they are getting from the DHHS is accurate.
"I'm concerned more about the balance of power between the branches," he said. "A breach of trust has happened. What I want to see come of this committee's work is to heal that breach."
The Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will likely need until July to complete the investigation.
Lawmakers said they may later launch a broader investigation into continued problems with the department's billing practices and communications with MaineCare providers and clients.
Mayhew has said the computer error was one of many problems identified when the new claims system went online in 2010 but she didn't learn about it until late January.
DHHS officials and other experts in the administration are studying the computer problems and the communication breakdown, Mayhew has said.
DHHS spokesman John Martins said Tuesday that Mayhew welcomes the investigation as long as it does not interfere with the work the department is doing to prepare updated budget figures.
Much of the discussion Tuesday focused on a lack of communication within the DHHS and problems with information that comes from the department to lawmakers. Legislators noted that there have been systemic computer problems in the DHHS dating back at least three administrations.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, the committee's House chairman, said it's clear that there's a problem with communication.
"Why is there so much miscommunication?" he said. "It's failing to pass on from one responsible person to another information that needs to be passed on."
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, the committee's Senate chairman, called it a "breakdown in human communication."
"There's a breakdown in getting information up the chain of command to the commissioner," he said.
After the disclosure about the thousands of ineligible people who continued to get benefits, budget discussions were suspended until new budget figures can be calculated.
Work will continue into May on what could be a $100 million DHHS budget to cover the period through June 2013.
Although the ongoing cost of MaineCare is expected to go down with ineligible people out of the system, the state will be liable for paying a portion of the costs back to the federal government, Mayhew has said.
Mayhew has told lawmakers that she doesn't know yet how much the state lost because of the computer error, or how much may have to be repaid to the federal government, which covers roughly two-thirds of MaineCare's cost.
Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said her office has already done one investigation of computer problems in the DHHS, in 2005.
She said many of the issues raised by Brannigan, about the lack of communication with service providers and the public, are issues that the office looked into seven years ago.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said that as a member of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, she's frustrated that Mayhew doesn't come in person to deliver information to the committee.
"I just feel like the lack of responsiveness to the Legislature is glaring," she said.
Susan Cover -- 620-7015