Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, talks to other members of the Senate about the budget at the Maine State House in Augusta in this June 30, 2017, file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services “will take prompt action” to comply with a law requiring that it restore its staff of public health nurses, according to a lawyer defending the department against a lawsuit for its failure to implement the 2017 law.

The announcement from Assistant Attorney General Deanna White came in documents filed Wednesday in Kennebec County Superior Court. The filing was a response to a July 30 lawsuit brought by state Sen. Brownie Carson and nurses Sarah DeCato and Donna Ellis.

“It is the Department’s position that, regardless of the course of this case, the Department will take prompt action to comply with” the public health nursing law, reads a letter from White to the court’s clerk.

The lawsuit asked the court to order Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to hire more than two dozen nurses within 90 days, as required by a law that passed over LePage’s veto.

The suit came after LePage’s DHHS missed a March 1 deadline set in the 2017 law to restore the state’s ranks of nurses, who visit at-risk mothers and their infants in their homes, provide school nurse services in rural schools without their own nurses, work to contain infectious diseases, and assist in responses to public health emergencies.

Carson said the statement that DHHS will comply with the law is meaningless until the state hires the nurses it’s required to hire.

“It seems to send a signal that they think we should, somehow, all of a sudden, trust them. And their words have no value at this point,” Carson said. “We need action now, because every single day, we’re putting kids at risk, we’re gambling on the hope that we won’t have an infectious disease outbreak, that we won’t somehow need these public health nurses.”

The LePage administration largely dismantled the state public health nursing program in its first six years in office, even as the state Legislature continued to fund public health nurse positions.

In 2011, when LePage took office, the state employed about 50 public health nurses. As of June, according to the Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, 19 of the state’s 42 current public health nurse positions were filled. Half of the program’s four supervisor positions were vacant as well.

The LePage administration last fall took steps to begin complying with the law requiring the public health nursing program’s restoration before it stopped advertising open positions and hiring nurses.

Carson, DeCato and Ellis had requested that the court appoint a special auditor to ensure the department complies with any court order.

The announcement from White, the assistant attorney general, indicated that Attorney General Janet Mills’ office plans to represent the state in this lawsuit, rather than authorize the LePage administration to hire private counsel, as it has done in a number of other cases against the administration. Mills’ office, in the announcement, also said it reserves the right to argue that Carson and the two nurses have no standing to file suit, that such a special auditor isn’t an option, and that the lawsuit is a moot point.

“You can’t have it both ways when they acknowledge in their letter to the clerk, our client will abide by the law, but we reserve the right to fight these plaintiffs on every conceivable ground,” Carson said.

A spokesman for Mills’ office declined a request for comment from the BDN. A spokeswoman for DHHS didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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