AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers on Tuesday authorized a probe of the Department of Health and Human Services over recent computer problems that led to thousands of ineligible people receiving MaineCare services.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, co-chairmen of the Government Oversight Committee, asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability for a “rapid response review” of DHHS specifically related to the computer system glitch.

“There appears to be a major breakdown in communication at the department … that never made its way up the chain of command,” Katz said. “One of most important issues here is that the Legislature has to be able to depend on information from all agencies, particularly as we make budget decisions.”

The communication problem goes back at least to 2010, so it has spanned two governors’ administrations — one a Democrat, the other a Republican. Katz pointed that out because he didn’t want the matter to turn into a partisan dispute.

However, Democrats already have accused the LePage administration of covering up the computer malfunctions and deliberately withholding information.

Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, initially called for an investigation late last month during a press conference, an event that was criticized as political theater by Republicans.

Republicans now say a probe is warranted.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has told lawmakers she plans to get to the bottom of the computer glitch and is tentatively scheduled to appear before the Appropriations Committee later this month. An independent review of DHHS prompted by the erroneous MaineCare payments is already under way, led by the Department of Administrative and Financial Services with support from the office of the state controller.

“Our organization is large and our day-to-day world is complex,” Mayhew said last month. “Potential problems arise with regularity and are resolved continuously. I plan to do this work in a way that continues to reflect a high level of professionalism, transparency, personal accountability, courtesy and respect.”

Burns said it was important that OPEGA’s review is narrowly focused.

“If we include every concern, it’s going to take months or years,” he said. “We need to see what we’re dealing with first and then go from there.”

Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA’s director, is expected to report back within the next few months.

The problems at DHHS have emerged amid sometimes-tense budget negotiations.

Lawmakers spent several weeks in January and February poring over the details of a proposed $220 million budget by Gov. Paul LePage that attempted to address a shortfall in DHHS.

The initial budget proposal contained a number of cuts to MaineCare services, including the elimination of an estimated 65,000 people from eligibility.

The Appropriations Committee eventually rewrote the governor’s budget proposal and the House and Senate passed a bill last month that addressed the shortfall just for the remainder of fiscal year 2012.

Shortly after the 2012 supplemental budget passed, though, Mayhew informed lawmakers of a problem she said she knew about while the budget was being discussed.

A computer error within the MaineCare program had led the state to continue paying medical bills for some beneficiaries after they became ineligible for the program. DHHS is trying to attach a dollar figure to the payments made over the last year and a half for ineligible beneficiaries, and it’s likely the state will have to repay the federal government. Two-thirds of MaineCare’s funding comes from the federal government.

How many people actually received benefits that they were ineligible for is likely to be a key part of the OPEGA investigation.

The Legislature still has to deal with an estimated 2013 shortfall at DHHS of $85 million to $90 million and some lawmakers are wondering how that will be accomplished given the department’s recent track record in managing the MaineCare program.

The current session is expected to wrap up this week or next but lawmakers will be summoned back to the State House in May to vote on the 2013 DHHS budget.

On the same day lawmakers authorized the OPEGA investigation, the Maine Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would restructure the department.

Gov. Paul LePage and his administration introduced the bill last month as part of an effort to streamline state government’s largest agency. LD 1887 consolidates four DHHS offices into two and reorganizes another, resulting in a net loss of 36 positions, many of which are vacant at the moment.

Many Democrats on Tuesday protested what one senator called “a terrible bill,” but it still passed after considerable debate on Tuesday. The measure requires additional votes in the House and Senate.

Follow BDN reporter Eric Russell on Twitter at @BDNPolitics.