Sen Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, seen speaking in a Senate debate in May, sued during the LePage administration to force the state to hire more public health nurses. A judge ended the lawsuit last month, saying the Mills administration is moving to comply with required staffing levels. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Mills administration is “substantially complying” with a law that mandates staffing levels for the state’s public health nursing program, ending a lawsuit filed last year by a state senator from Harpswell.

The public health nursing program, which delivers a wide range of services to at-risk populations, dwindled during the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage. His successor, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, has committed to rebuilding the program by hiring more nurses.

“The record shows that this is not a case where the department has taken no action at all toward meeting its legislative obligations,” Justice Michaela Murphy wrote in an 11-page ruling on June 27. “Even if it had not previously made appropriate efforts to hire nurses, the department has now taken substantial steps toward filling all PHN vacancies.”

A law championed by Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, that passed in 2017 requires the Department of Health and Human Services to have at least 48 public health nurses. Murphy’s ruling indicates that the Department of Health and Human Services has filled 37 positions and has 13 vacancies.

“This is in sharp contrast to the 25 vacancies which existed in January, 2017,” Murphy wrote. “The department continues to schedule and conduct interviews of applicants for PHN positions.”

Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said “the department is hiring public health nurses as expeditiously as possible and recruiting remains a top priority in the face of a statewide nursing shortage.”

Farwell said the public health nursing program is focusing on helping women at hospitals with prenatal and postpartum care, school flu vaccine clinics, and helping families struggling with substance use disorder.

The program’s workforce declined dramatically following LePage’s election in 2010, dropping from about 50 nurses in 2011 to the low 20s, prompting Carson to propose the law, which passed in 2017 despite LePage’s veto.

But the LePage administration still failed to hire significantly more nurses and Carson responded by filing the lawsuit. Even though the Mills administration began hiring more nurses after she took office in January – during a time when there has been a statewide nursing shortage – the new administration continued to fight the lawsuit in court on constitutional grounds.

Carson said Friday he does not plan to appeal Murphy’s decision, although he wishes that the judge had forced the LePage administration to make the hires last year.

“The good news is that we now have an administration that appreciates and believes in the value of public health nurses,” Carson said. “They really are committed to restoring the public health nursing program.”

Public health nurses do front-line work in communities, such as responding to infectious disease outbreaks, helping at-risk mothers and their newborn babies, and performing a number of illness prevention duties. Most recently, public health nurses were dispatched to the Portland Expo to conduct health screenings and give vaccinations to the hundreds of asylum seekers from Africa.

The Maine Attorney General’s Office, in legal filings, had contended that the law requiring DHHS to staff a certain number of positions is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers between the Legislature, the courts and the executive branch.

But Murphy, even though she ended the lawsuit, slapped down the Mills administration’s separation of powers argument. She ruled only on whether the Mills administration was complying with the law that mandated the staffing levels and found no separation of powers problems with the law.

 

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