AUGUSTA, Maine — The LePage administration’s plan to reorganize the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services got a thumbs-up Tuesday from a legislative committee.

The Health and Human Services committee voted 9-3 in favor of the restructuring bill, which consolidates four DHHS offices into two and reorganizes another.

Meanwhile, partisan tensions hit a fever pitch over computer problems in the state’s Medicaid program, which is overseen by DHHS. Democrats reiterated accusations of a cover-up by the LePage administration, while Republicans came to the commissioner’s defense.

DHHS officials say the restructuring will make the department’s web of services easier to navigate.

DHHS administers a range of health and social services including mental health programs, foster care and oversight of public drinking water. It has offices from Sanford to Fort Kent and employs roughly 3,600 people.

Lawmakers on the committee green-lighted the restructuring bill after tweaking a controversial plan to privatize some services for the state’s most mentally ill residents.

Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, said she was confident that DHHS staff would pave the way to a more efficient social safety net for Maine residents.

“You want to take this department, you want to make it run better, you want to get to the bottom of those thousand people that sit on waitlists waiting for services, our most vulnerable who have fallen through the holes in the net,” she said.

The restructuring bill, LD 1887, called for eliminating 33 “intensive case managers” who work with severely mentally ill and potentially dangerous residents and shifting those services to the private sector. The proposal elicited criticism at a public hearing last week from opponents who said it would put Maine’s needy at risk.

The committee sought to keep intensive case management services in-house for prison and county jail inmates while contracting out the rest.

The bill’s broader plan is to merge the Offices of Substance Abuse and Adult Mental Health Services and combine the offices of Elder Services and Cognitive and Physical Disabilities Services. The Office of Child and Family Services would reorganize and link together its four major service areas, including child welfare and behavioral health.

The proposal cuts 91 positions and creates 55 jobs for a net loss of 36 positions. Several of the jobs under the ax are vacant.

The reorganization is expected to save $750,000, though DHHS officials have said its aim is to eliminate duplicative work and integrate care across residents’ lifetimes, not to cut costs.

The bill also would outsource advocacy services for people with intellectual disabilities and autism.

Rep. Mark Eves of North Berwick was one of three Democrats present who voted against the restructuring bill. He said he worried about the measure’s last-minute introduction and the administration’s competency in implementing the plan.

“I think the department does have a great opportunity to do good and I hope that I can reflect back on this vote here and the vote that we’ll be taking over at the House and be proven wrong,” he said.

The reorganization bill now goes to House and Senate.

The committee’s vote came on the heels of a heated State House press conference in which Democrats again accused the LePage administration of covering up a computer error in the state’s Medicaid program.

A computing problem led the program, known as MaineCare, to continue paying medical bills for up to 19,000 beneficiaries after they became ineligible. DHHS is still trying to attach a dollar figure to the bad payments, which went to health care providers over the last year and a half.

About two dozen Democrats accused administration officials of lying about the problem while the Legislature was considering painful budget cuts earlier this year.

“It’s time for the administration to first take responsibility for their mismanagement and second, and most importantly, take responsibility for willfully misleading lawmakers,” said Democratic Sen. Joseph Brannigan of Portland.

Brannigan has called for an independent investigation of the department. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee is expected to take up the matter on Friday.

Republicans shot back with a news conference of their own, defending DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew and saying the computer problems date back years.

“It is well documented that these problems consistently plagued the Baldacci administration and were passed along to the LePage administration,” Senate President Kevin Raye said in a statement.

“Let’s get to the bottom of it, but to toss around words like ‘cover up’ and ‘lying’ are not only inappropriate, but they really don’t help us,” said Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...