AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted 30-5 Wednesday in favor of a bill that could force the administration of Gov. Paul LePage to fully staff the state’s public health nursing program.

The program, which once had 59 nurses statewide, has been reduced to just 20 nurses, and lawmakers said it is having a dramatic and negative impact on the health of vulnerable populations, including infants in poverty.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Brunswick, sets specific staffing requirements and deadlines while requiring a written report to the full Legislature in 2018 making recommendations for any additional changes.

Carson said he was pleased with the bipartisan support the bill received on its initial passage Wednesday. Thirteen Republicans joined minority Democrats in voting for the bill, giving it the two-thirds support it needs to survive a likely LePage veto. The measure still faces additional votes in the House and Senate, however.

“This issue won bipartisan support because the health of Mainers is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” Carson said following the vote. “It’s a critical imperative for all of us elected to represent the best interests of our constituents, and nothing is more important than the health of Maine people.”

Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, who is a retired doctor, said public health nursing was a specialized field that focused on preventing disease and disability. He said arguments against keeping the program fully staffed were being made by Maine Centers for Disease Control, which oversees the program, and they were not giving the Legislature the full picture of how dramatic the shortage of public health nurses was. “The fact is when you talk to the people on the ground, the nurses who are doing the work, they have a very, very different position,” Gratwick said. “They are the people who say they need more help to do the work they do.”

The five Republican opponents to the bill including Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. He said those backing the measure were exaggerating the statistics on things like infant mortality rates and that an overall shortage of registered nurses in Maine was making it difficult to fill vacancies in the program.

Trying to force the administration’s hand was probably not going to solve that problem, Brakey argued, noting the Maine CDC had put in place plan to deal with the shortages. He said he disagreed with the “narrative that Maine’s public health nursing program was being dismantled” but agreed that the work public health nurses do is important.

Public health nurses conduct home visits with young families and pregnant women, providing education and assessment to help new parents raise health children, a release for Carson stated. “They also play a critical role in helping families with substance-affected babies. But their work goes beyond the household. PHNs provide critical crisis response services, such as in 2009 when they established 238 clinics in Maine to provide H1N1 vaccines.”

Besides receiving broad bipartisan support in the Senate the bill was also endorsed by the Maine Public Health Association, Maine Medical Association, AARP Maine and the Primary Care Association.

The bill faces additional votes in both the House and Senate.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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