AUGUSTA — A legislative oversight committee is considering an investigation of the 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,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, co-chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, said Thursday. The committee meets again next week and could take up the issue then, he said.

Democrats especially turned up the heat on DHHS this week, accusing the department of covering up a computer error that led to as many as 19,000 ineligible people receiving 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 a legislative investigation of the department’s current leadership.

“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.”

Republican leaders of the House and Senate blocked Brannigan’s bill, however, saying the Government Oversight Committee should decide whether an investigation is warranted. The oversight committee is designed to be non-partisan and objective, with five members from each party.

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

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

Sen. Jon Courtney, R-Springvale, said he expects and supports a review by the Oversight Committee, although he wants to make sure the review goes back to the previous administration. Courtney said the MaineCare eligibility error began under the Baldacci Administration and that some problems were passed on when the LePage Administration come in.

“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 saying the MaineCare error already is under review, but that a legislative investigation would be welcomed.

“An independent analysis of DHHS is currently underway, with the Division of Administrative and Financial Services taking the lead and the Office of the State Controller offering verification and support,” she wrote.

“The decision whether OPEGA gets involved is not ours to make.  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 she told lawmakers about the error as soon as she had enough details, although she also agreed she should have warned them sooner that there was a problem.