State Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, and two people seeking work as public health nurses have sued the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to force it to hire more nurses.

Carson and the other plaintiffs filed suit in Kennebec Superior Court on Monday against DHHS Commissioner Ricker Hamilton in an attempt to force the administration to comply with LD 1108, a law sponsored by Carson that requires the department to increase the number of public health nurses in Maine.

Public health nurses provide a variety of services to the community, from home visits to pregnant women and young mothers to emergency responses for disease outbreaks. Public health nurses also assist with drug-affected infants. The Portland Press Herald reports that the annual salary for a public health nurse is between $40,000 and $50,000.

“We have no capability at this point to deal with an outbreak of an infectious disease like a serious flu or tuberculosis,” said Carson.

Since Gov. Paul LePage came to office in 2011, the number of public health nurses has dwindled as employees retired or otherwise left the program and were not replaced. Some positions have been left open for years, said Carson. In 2011, there were 59 public health nurses; in 2017, there were just 23.

Last year, Carson led an effort to restore that program, sponsored a bill requiring the department to fill the 48 positions funded by the Legislature and to advertise for those positions. With wide support, the Legislature passed the bill into law in spite of the governor’s veto.

Yet, less than half of the state’s public health nurse positions are currently filled. Of the 48 positions approved for funding by the Legislature, only 22 are filled.

According to Carson, the department has hired at most eight public health nurses in the last nine months, but a number of retirements has actually caused the number to drop below the level of nurses in January.

He alleges that the department has failed to properly advertise the positions. Moreover, Carson claims that when presented with fully qualified candidates, the department has declined to hire them. Two such individuals, Sarah DeCato and Donna Ellis, have joined Carson in his lawsuit against the commissioner.

“They applied during this period and were strung along and told they were needed, and then they were not hired,” said Carson. “They wanted to go work for public health nursing and were refused employment.”

An email filed as evidence shows a DHHS representative telling Ellis that “the administration put a pause on (hiring) at the beginning of February,” which prevented them from hiring her.

Carson said he’s been stonewalled by the department in his attempts to get information about the program, despite reaching out to the administration more than once.

“We never got the information about what they were doing,” said Carson, “whether they were going to hire, whether they were going to advertise or what was going on inside the department.”

Jan Morrissette, former director of the public health nursing program, said that there were some positions posted on the state website in the winter, but there hasn’t appeared to be any advertising for public health nursing positions since February. Despite having more than 20 positions unfilled, there were no postings for public health nurses on the state’s job board on Monday.

Carson alleges that in a June 5 meeting, DHHS Government Affairs Director Julian Baer told him and Morrissette that they would not see LD 1108 fully implemented in the next seven months — the remainder of LePage’s term.

“We looked at our options and came to the conclusion that we had no choice, absolutely no choice, but to sue the commissioner in his official capacity,” said Carson.

The lawsuit asks for an injunction from the court to force the department to properly advertise for the positions and hire nurses to fill all 48 positions within 90 days. It also calls for monthly reports on the department’s progress and the appointment of a special auditor to provide oversight of this process.

“We want these nurses hired, the job done, within the next 90 days,” said Carson.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said that they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

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