AUGUSTA –Gov.-elect Janet Mills has tapped a Mainer and former health policy expert in the Obama administration to be the commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Jeanne Lambrew, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth, worked in the Obama White House for seven years as the deputy director of health policy. She holds master’s and doctoral degrees in health policy from University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health and a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.

Lambrew also worked four years in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is viewed as one Obama’s key aides in the implementation of the landmark Affordable Care Act.

“This is the most important department and the most important appointment I can make,” Mills said in introducing Lambrew at a State House press conference Friday. Maine DHHS has a $3.4 billion budget and 3,400 employees.

In the 1990s, Lambrew, 51, also served in the administration of President Bill Clinton in the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, the White House National Economic Council and the White House Office of Management and Budget. In these roles, she helped coordinate health policy development with HHS and other relevant federal agencies, evaluate legislative proposals, and oversee initiatives like Children’s Health Insurance Program implementation.

In 2017 and 2018, she was a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, where she conducted research on policies to improve health care access, affordability, and quality.

Lambrew’s father is Dr. Costas Lambrew, who was a cardiologist at Maine Medical Center in Portland for 40 years. Her mother, Pat, is a nurse who volunteered with the local rescue squad.

Lambrew’s selection came as a surprise to close observers of the State House, where Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine, former chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, was regarded as the likely nominee. Gattine was among those considered for the post, the Mills team confirmed Friday.

The selection of Lambrew drew praise from Democratic leaders at the State House, with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash and Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, both issuing supportive statements.

“Ms. Lambrew’s stellar experience will be a welcome addition and, once confirmed, we look forward to working in partnership with her and the entire department,” Gideon said.

If confirmed by the state Senate, now controlled by Democrats, Lambrew will inherit a department that has been steeped in controversy, upheaval and conservative reforms pushed by the LePage’s administration.

The department, the largest in state government, has been wracked by high staff turnover and faced heavy public scrutiny for everything from problems in a child protective system to the loss of federal certification and funding for the state’s secure mental health hospital.

Mills said Friday that “rebuilding” DHHS was a top priority and Lambrew would be the right person to put in charge.

“For the last year the people of Maine have told me time and time again that health care is the number one issue in their lives, businesses across Maine have also said health care is the number one issue in their lives,” Mills said. “In Jeanne Lambrew I have found a health expert of the highest regard, someone who will execute the transformation that Maine people have demanded.”

Mills has promised a voter-approved expansion of Medicaid that her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has resisted for two years by battling the expansion in the courts.

Lambrew’s expertise and understanding of federal government and the health care law is expected to aid in the implementation of that expansion, which could see Maine pull down as much as $500 million a year in federal matching funds to provide health care to the poor.

Lambrew said she did not expect Maine to face any additional scrutiny from the Republican administration of President Trump, especially with her predecessor, Mary Mayhew, now heading the federal agency responsible for Medicaid.

“I do expect the federal government to treat Maine no differently than any other state, no better nor any worse and in fact I would argue their commitment to fostering state control and state flexibility means there may even be more opportunities than not,” Lambrew said. “So I look forward to that engagement because I think they are shared priorities and shared attitudes as towards what states could be doing at this time when there are some divides in Washington.”

Both Mills and Lambrew placed an emphasis on child protective services. Mills said the workers on the front lines were the most important in state government. “That’s the most important hire you make,” Mills said. “The person who is out in the field actually saving lives.”

DHHS faced heavy criticism after the deaths of Marissa Kennedy, 10, and Kendall Chick, 3, in late 2017 and early 2018.

The deaths prompted an internal investigation by DHHS and two external probes by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability. Among other issues, a shortage of child protective case workers and an antiquated DHHS records-keeping system were identified as shortfalls in the system.

In the last year caseworkers have stepped forward to express a host of concerns, particularly the need for a reduction in caseloads, which were heavy even before the deaths of Chick and Kennedy and have only gotten worse since. Also in 2018, the union representing caseworkers sent a letter to the governor outlining suggested improvements.

Some of those suggestions, such as updating the information systems, overlapped with reforms LePage had proposed that were approved by the Legislature.

“Child protection is one of the most important parts of the mission and the function of the Department of Health and Human Services,” Mills said.

Lambrew said keeping the lives of all Mainers safe was the job of DHHS.

“The first priority is safety, keeping Mainers safe – children, babies, seniors, adults, that has got to be the number one priority,” Lambrew said. She said as the leader of DHHS she intended to be clear about those priorities and would additionally work to rebuild the morale at the department.


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