AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s nominee for commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services will likely face intense questioning about the agency’s accountability and responsiveness at his confirmation hearing Friday.

Ricker Hamilton, a longtime DHHS administrator, could also be questioned about a recent federal audit that faulted the agency for, among other things, failing to investigate the deaths of 133 intellectually disabled adults being cared for in state-sanctioned group homes from January 2013 to June 2015.

Democrats in particular have long complained that DHHS withholds information and refuses to cooperate with the Legislature, especially under Hamilton’s former boss Mary Mayhew, a Republican now running for governor.

Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Portland, the ranking Senate Democrat on the Health and Human Services Committee, said he wants Hamilton to be candid with legislators.

“This is one of our largest departments – it’s over a third of our state budget, and we ought to get good answers and we ought to have accountability for the taxpayers of the state and for the citizens and residents that are served by the various agencies in the department,” Chipman said Thursday. “I’m hoping he will do a better job in general than we saw under the previous commissioner. I’m hoping for straightforward answers to things the committee wants answers to.”

Mayhew resigned in June and Hamilton was nominated by LePage this month to replace her. If the committee supports his nomination, the full Senate is expected to hold a confirmation vote early next week, when the Legislature returns for a brief special session.

MANY QUESTIONS, NOT JUST ON AUDIT

Committee members from both parties said they expect a broad range of questions for Hamilton, who would head a department dogged by controversy and frequently in the public spotlight.

Some of the questioning will focus on the audit released in August by the federal Office of Inspector General, which found that DHHS failed to adequately protect developmentally disabled Medicaid patients in Maine, neglected to investigate deaths and did not properly report incidents such as sexual assault, suicidal acts and serious injuries.

Many of the audit’s criticisms are directed at DHHS offices under Hamilton’s oversight while he was deputy commissioner for programs, before Mayhew departed and he was appointed acting commissioner in June.

Still, Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, the House chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she doesn’t expect the hearing to focus solely on the audit.

“We have many topics to talk with him about and that’s one of them,” Hymanson said. “I don’t want one topic to eat up all the time of the committee.”

Hymanson said she would focus on “what is his philosophy regarding the relationship between the Legislature and the executive branch – I think a lack of transparency is an overarching theme. There is a need for a better working relationship.”

She emphasized that the hearing is about Hamilton, not Mayhew, although some have speculated that it might be politicized in an attempt to either promote or impede Mayhew’s campaign.

Hymanson said it’s more important to hear what Hamilton considers successes over his long career and what “he’s seen as challenges or things he would have done differently.”

INFORMATION FLOW, REACHING OUT

Since he was named acting commissioner, Hamilton has improved the flow of information to the committee and Legislature, said state Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the committee’s Senate co-chair.

“And he has made himself accessible and has been reaching out to all the members of the committee, including the Democrat members of the committee, regarding this OIG report and around other issues and questions that people have had in the last few months,” Brakey said.

He said he expects testimony in support of Hamilton’s nomination from both parties. “Of course, it is an election year, so you never know what kind of political games will be played,” Brakey said.

He said committee Democrats should consider who LePage might nominate if they oppose Hamilton. “I think they will have to ask themselves, ‘If not Ricker, then who?’ ” Brakey said.

Hamilton served as deputy commissioner of programs at DHHS from 2013 until June. He has managed the Offices of Aging and Disability Services, Child and Family Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center and the Riverview Psychiatric Center.

He also was program administrator for adult protective services at DHHS and an instructor at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Saint Anselm College in 1976 and a master’s degree in social work from Boston College in 1984.

IMPROVEMENTS, LOOKING TO FUTURE

State Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the ranking House Republican on the committee, said she too believes the confirmation hearing will focus on Hamilton’s career, his qualifications and on how he would lead the department.

Sanderson said the federal audit had become “highly politicized” and she hoped questions would focus on what DHHS has done to improve on the issues it highlighted.

“I would hope (Friday) we are not looking to the past but looking to the future and on who is going to lead the department into the future,” Sanderson said.

The confirmation hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in the Cross Office Building next to the State House in Augusta.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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