Opinion

Time to write a new page at DHHS

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It’s a new day — and a new year — for more than 70,000 Mainers who have been waiting years for health care coverage.

New Gov. Janet Mills has vowed that she will begin to implement Medicaid expansion as soon as possible. She has tapped Jeanne Lambrew, a national recognized expert on health care, as commissioner for the Department of Health and Human Services to reform and revitalize the department.

Despite the misinformation from former Gov. Paul LePage, there’s money in the state’s Medicaid account to pay for expansion.

And experts agree that Mills can stop changes to the program sought by LePage in an attempt to keep coverage away from low-income families who need it.

All in all, I’d say that’s a good way to start the New Year and a new administration.

In 2017, Maine voters overwhelmingly approved Medicaid expansion. The vote came after bipartisan majorities in the Legislature passed expansion five times — only to see LePage and a minority in the Maine House of Representatives block the much-needed reform.

It is not an exaggeration to say that one man, LePage, immune from the facts, the real experiences in other expansion states and compassion for Mainers — including those struggling with opioid addiction — kept health care coverage away from thousands of people.

It’s also true that LePage blocked the state from receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support set aside to provide health care coverage to people, hurting rural hospitals particularly and unnecessarily hampering economic growth.

That man is now gone and expansion is on its way.

We know that improving access to health care services is one of the most important things we can do to fight back against opioid addiction. We know that rural hospitals are struggling despite being important centers in their communities and that Medicaid expansion will help. And we know that many people covered by expansion are working but still can’t afford rising health care premiums.

Lambrew was the first cabinet nominee announced by Mills, and comes to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services with an impressive resume and real health care expertise.

She served as the director of the Office of Health Reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for President Barack Obama and later as a health policy advisory at the White House. She also coordinated health care policy for the federal government for President Bill Clinton.

Lambrew has been a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, and the George Washington University School of Public Health. She has a master’s degree and doctoral degree in health policy from the University of North Carolina’s school of public health.
Needless to say, expectations for both Mills and Lambrew are high.

No matter how experienced and qualified, both Mills and Lambrew will face an enormous test immediately upon taking office. DHHS deals with some of the hardest issues facing the state — protecting children, sometimes from their own families; poverty; public health — and yet the department has been allowed to atrophy under LePage and former Commissioner Mary Mayhew.

While the work of expanding Medicaid will capture the headlines, the less sexy work of just fixing the department will likely be a larger and harder undertaking.

There will be hiccups, missteps and mistakes. But for the first time in a long time for low-income Mainers, the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train. It’s a ray of hope that after unnecessary delays, political malfeasance and meanness, health care is coming to people who have waited too long.

In honor of the new year, a new governor — who loves poetry — and a new hope, I’ll leave you with the words of Edith Lovejoy Pierce: “We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day.”

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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