Maine’s commissioner of health and human services didn’t take the time this week to meet with lawmakers who have legitimate questions about the operation of her department. Instead, on Thursday Mary Mayhew’s office released some prepared statements that were supposed to put those questions to rest.

But her answers just raised more questions. Mayhew should go before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and stop avoiding these problems.

One of the statements addressed Mayhew’s decision to spend $925,000 on a study of the state’s welfare programs by The Alexander Group of Rhode Island. The company is led by Gary Alexander, a hard-right ideologue who has had controversial service as welfare director in his home state and Pennsylvania, where he abruptly resigned earlier this year. A state audit after his departure revealed that his leadership had cost the state $7 million by mismanaging programs.

A million-dollar contract from a department as large as the DHHS (annual budget of $3.4 billion) is not unusual, but writing such a big check to such a partisan player with such a questionable record should be. And handing out a five-paragraph statement rather than going to lawmakers and answering their questions directly does not inspire confidence.

According to Mayhew’s statement, The Alexander Group was chosen by “the department,” and it is “uniquely qualified” to carry out the study.

Who in “the department” made the decision? What process was used to vet the organization’s ability? In what sense were its qualifications unique? Mayhew doesn’t say.

Mayhew said that Alexander has “successfully guided reforms that have created more flexibility within Medicaid,” but she is not specific.

Is she referring to the waiver that Rhode Island received to run its Medicaid program, which analysts from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found allowed the state to spend more on the program than it otherwise would have? Was it the “reforms” he piloted in Pennsylvania, where 80,000 children lost their health insurance? Again, Mayhew is silent.

Mayhew says that contracts bigger than this have been awarded without bids by previous administrations and that criticism of this one results from “selective and short-term memory.” She may be right – if there ever were contracts of this size awarded to out-of-state partisan policy mills with such controversial records, they don’t come to mind. Maybe if Mayhew had appeared before the committee, she might have been able to tell the public to what she is referring.

It would also be useful to know what other million-dollar research contracts she has granted or is considering granting, especially to political allies. Answering these questions may have eased concerns about The Alexander Group and it even may have given the consultant’s report more credibility when it finally comes out – the group has already blown its first deadline.

But Mayhew’s five-paragraph news release does not put any of these concerns to rest. On this and other issues, she still has much to answer for.

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