A federal report released last year on the way Maine cares for adults with developmental disabilities revealed a flawed system lacking real oversight.

Not only did the Department of Health and Human Services fail for two-and-a-half years to follow federal requirements and state law in investigating incidents in which care was compromised, but there was no one to make sure that it did. In a fractured system of care overseen by a massive department with many complex responsibilities, it was too easy for things to fall through the cracks.

Two bills now before the Legislature would correct that, providing checks and balances on the care of hundreds of intellectually disabled adults who live in group homes under supervision of DHHS. Lawmakers should pass these bills, and give these Mainers and their families the protection they deserve.

The report released last August, from the U.S. Office of Inspector General, found that community-based providers regularly failed to report to the state incidents in which adults in their care were taken to the emergency room. Of the “critical incidents” reported to the state — such as hospital visits, abuse and neglect claims, medication issues, or exploitation — just 5 percent were investigated by DHHS.

The report also found that DHHS failed to investigate the deaths of 133 individuals in state care. The department argued this point, saying it had in fact further examined 54 of these deaths, but could not provide documentation.

Following the publication of the report, families reached out to the Portland Press Herald to say they had experienced a number of problems, including group homes in poor condition and a lack of communication from DHHS.

The department has argued that it was aware of the problems revealed in the report, and that they have since been fixed. The period covered by the report was “a time of significant transition” for the department, a spokeswoman said, as a number of offices were being merged.

It was also after the 2011 elimination of the Office of Advocacy within DHHS, which previously investigated complaints from family members of those receiving state services. With it went one avenue for making sure the system was working as it should.

The bills before the Legislature would add some oversight where it was lost.

Following one of the recommendations in the OIG report, L.D. 1676, from Rep. Dale Denno, D-Cumberland, would create a position within DHHS for a registered nurse who would review all deaths and serious injuries within the system, and forward those that need closer examination to a cross-disciplinary panel.

The minority report on the bill suggests instead using a similar body with the Office of the Attorney General, which could be satisfactory if that panel can handle the workload.

L.D. 1709, from Rep. Jennifer Parker, D-South Berwick, would re-invigorate the Maine Development Services & Advisory Board. The indepdendent board previously reviewed deaths of adults under state care to look for trends and systemic problems, and report annually to the governor and Legislature. However, DHHS stopped sending records to the board, and Gov. Paul LePage stopped acting on member nominations, following a dispute over confidentiality, stopping its work.

Together, these bills will bring much-needed internal and external oversight to a system that desperately needs it. DHHS may say it is fixed, but the families of Mainers with developmental disabilities deserve more than those assurances. They need to know that if things go wrong again, this time, someone will be watching.

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