AUGUSTA — A legislative oversight committee is considering an investigation of the state Department of Health and Human Services as lawmakers step up their criticism of the department.

“A number of us are looking at a way to review what is obviously an unacceptable lack of communication within the department going back over two administrations,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee.

The committee will meet next week and could take up the issue then, he said Thursday.

Democrats especially turned up the heat on the DHHS this week, accusing the department of covering up a computer error that allowed as many as 19,000 ineligible people to receive MaineCare coverage during the past two years.

Lawmakers learned about the error only after voting to balance the MaineCare budget by cutting off benefits to thousands of recipients.

Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, submitted a bill Thursday that would have required an investigation of the department’s current leadership by the state Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“The fact that they knew there were problems but were unwilling to admit to it was sort of a cover-up,” Brannigan said. “Nobody feels confident that we are getting any kind of information that is straight.”

Brannigan cited other problems in the department, including a complaint by an unnamed care provider who has been waiting for more than a year to be repaid for a mistake by the MaineCare claims system.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, supported Brannigan’s bill, which needed special approval because it was introduced late in the session.

“We’re talking about potentially millions of dollars that has been misspent,” Alfond said.

But Republican leaders in the House and Senate blocked Brannigan’s bill, saying the Government Oversight Committee should decide whether an investigation is warranted.

The oversight committee is designed to be independent and nonpartisan, with five members from each party. It can ask the accountability office to investigate without a vote by the full Legislature.

Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said Brannigan’s bill would have circumvented the regular process.

“It’s going to be up to the members of the oversight committee,” Raye said. “I think it almost certainly will be considered.”

House Speaker Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, criticized Brannigan for playing to the media and “fanning partisan flames.”

“Sen. Brannigan should know better than to use highly inflammatory terms like ‘cover-up’ when referring to the recent computer problems at DHHS, particularly when the Legislature is in the process of trying to find the root of the system’s difficulties that began, and went unreported, during the previous administration,” Nutting said in a prepared statement.

Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said he expects and supports a review by the Government Oversight Committee, although he wants to make sure the review goes back to when Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, was in office.

Courtney said some of the department’s problems appear to be related to the transition from the Baldacci administration to the LePage administration.

“This issue is something that needs to be looked at, and it needs to be looked at completely,” Courtney said. “I’m confident the Government Oversight Committee will look at it and do a thorough review.”

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew issued a written statement Thursday saying the MaineCare error already is under review by experts in the administration, but a legislative investigation would be welcomed.

“The decision whether OPEGA gets involved is not ours to make,” she wrote. “We welcome their investigation provided the timing is such that it does not take away from the staffing resources currently dedicated to resolving system issues and conducting critical financial analysis.”

Mayhew has said that she told lawmakers about the MaineCare eligibility error as soon as she had enough details. She also has said that she should have warned them sooner that there was a problem.

It still is not clear what the financial impact of the error will be on the department and the state’s budget.

While the state will save money by no longer covering the 19,000 ineligible people, it will likely have to repay the federal government for its share of the medical claims that were paid in error. The federal government pays about two-thirds of the cost of MaineCare insurance coverage.

State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]