AUGUSTA, Maine — Key state lawmakers, including a Lewiston senator, are questioning a nearly $1 million contract to hire a consultant to study an expansion of Medicaid in Maine.

Lawmakers also are questioning the consulting firm’s objectivity and why Department of Health and Human Services officials in Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration awarded the no-bid contract under the radar of the Legislature.

“I would like to know where they are finding a million dollars,” said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston. “I would also like to know why the governor did not hire a consultant to help with Riverview (Psychiatric Center), or a consultant to help with the non-emergency transportation (program). They are two major money-wasters, and debacles that the governor does not seem to be concerned with.”

Craven is Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. Her reference to Riverview and the ride program are two other issues the Legislature and DHHS are dealing with.

Riverview, the state’s forensic psychiatric hospital, faces a loss of nearly $20 million in federal funding while the $40-million nonemergency rides program has been in turmoil since the state hired three private-sector brokers to administer the rides.

“I truly have smoke coming out of my ears about this,” Craven said Wednesday. “It makes no rhyme or reason to me, and this particular consultant, for one thing, he is a carbon copy of the governor’s philosophy.”

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said outrage from Democrats in the Legislature is misplaced, given that many departments in state government, including the Legislature, regularly contract for studies. She noted a recent $450,000 study contracted by the Legislature’s Education Committee in 2012.

“It’s nothing that’s out of the ordinary,” Bennett said.

She said lawmakers were wrong to leap to conclusions about what the study would recommend before it was complete. “It’s not partisan and we don’t know what it’s going to say, given it’s not even out yet,” Bennett said.

Still others questioned why the contract, signed in September, was only this week brought to the public’s attention and why state lawmakers were not told of the study before November.

“You know we’ve been in meetings with (the Appropriations and Financial Affairs and Health and Human Services committees) and nobody in the administration has said anything about this $1 million contract,” said state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston. Rotundo is House chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.

Rotundo predicted the spending would likely lead to budget shortfalls for the Legislature as it looks to balance the state budget in 2014.

A review of the new contract shows the state is paying for about half of the work from the General Fund while the rest is paid from special fund resources or with federal funds.

The Alexander Group, the company hired to do the work, did a similar review of Medicaid programs in Arkansas for that state’s Legislature. The company, headed by Gary Alexander, produced a 92-page report in July 2013 for $220,000.

Alexander has experience in state government with a focus on welfare and health and human services reform. He previously served as secretary of public welfare for the state of Pennsylvania and held a similar post as secretary of Health and Human Services for the state of Rhode Island.

The contract in Maine was offered exclusively to Alexander’s firm because, according to Maine DHHS spokesman John Martins, it was “uniquely qualified” to perform the work.

Republicans see Alexander as a cost-cutting reformer, while Democrats have attacked his credibility and suggested they can already guess what his $1 million Maine study will determine.

“I’m glad to see the LePage administration take yet another important step in bringing accountability and cost-savings to Maine’s welfare system by initiating this third-party review,” said Newport Rep. Ken Fredette, the leader of the Republican minority in the House. “I look forward to seeing the results of this partnership, because for too long, past administrations let welfare waste and spending grow to an unsustainable level.”

The scope of Alexander’s Arkansas report is similar in its focus on Medicaid costs to what he’s being tasked to review in Maine, but the Maine study is more expansive and requires multiple reports to the state.

The first of those, which looks into the feasibility of expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, is due Dec. 1.

Analysis of the state’s welfare programs with suggested options for “global reform,” along with a plan to redesign the state’s Medicaid system, are due Dec. 20.

The final two portions of the Alexander Group Maine study are due in 2014.

A plan to “align and enhance” Maine’s welfare-to-work programs is due March 15. While a final review of “system-wide program integrity” and an associated “action plan” is due May 15.

That final report, which is the most costly of the services, at $454,320, isn’t due until well after the Legislature’s adjournment date in April.

Rotundo also said recent news out of Pennsylvania may not bode well for Alexander’s reputation.

On Nov. 14, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released a report showing “long-term mismanagement” cost the state $7 million during Alexander’s tenure at the helm of the Department of Public Welfare.

That report indicates Alexander’s efforts to consolidate a payroll system for home health care providers relied on cutting 37 payroll agencies down to one and resulted in “thousands of workers” going for weeks and months without pay.

“Our audit found that problems with the transition caused so much fear and confusion that at least 1,500 people receiving home care services switched to a more expensive model of care that is unnecessarily costing at least $7 million more per year,” DePasquale said in a prepared statement.

Rotundo said she believes the LePage administration hired Alexander to produce a study that will fortify its opposition to expanding Medicaid in Maine.

Both she and Craven characterized the hiring of Alexander for the study as “cronyism.”

“If you are really serious about studying an issue, you hire somebody who is nonpartisan,” Rotundo said. “If you really want information that’s going to help you come up with a good solution to a problem, you want unbiased information. The fact that the governor is writing a check for a crony, who has a track record of harming children in struggling families in other states suggest to me he’s looking for a gimmick, an excuse to deny and delay health care for thousands of Mainers.”

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.