A Democratic state senator is suing the LePage administration for its failure to hire public health nurses, as required by a recently approved law he championed.

Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Brunswick, said, “Maine people deserve answers, and more importantly, a vibrant and functioning public health nursing service.”

Sen. Brownie Carson of Brunswick sued in Kennebec County Superior Court on Monday, charging the LePage administration with failing to hire and maintain a public health nursing staff of 48, as spelled out in a 2017 law. Carson said LePage is flouting the law because the governor does not believe in the value of public health nursing.

The law, passed with substantial bipartisan support, forced the LePage administration to increase public health nurse staffing after the workforce dwindled from 59 in 2011 to about 25 in early 2017. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill, but the Legislature overrode the veto in the summer of 2017. Joining Carson in the lawsuit are two nurses who applied for public health nursing positions but were told that the state was not hiring.

Public health nurses earn between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, and do front-line work in the communities, such as responding to infectious disease outbreaks, helping at-risk mothers and their newborn babies, and performing a number of health prevention duties.

At first, it appeared that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services was following the law, the lawsuit said. DHHS was required to have hired the nurses by March 1, according to the law.

In January, Ricker Hamilton, health and human services commissioner, told the Press Herald that the state was having a “great response” in the recruitment effort, that seven new nurses had been hired, and that state officials were moving forward with hiring additional nurses.

“We’re re-committed and re-energized with this process. We want it to succeed and it will,” Hamilton said in January. Hamilton’s comments were an about-face from the spring of 2017, when Maine DHHS opposed hiring public health nurses, arguing they were not needed,

But hiring efforts stalled out this spring, according to the lawsuit, and the workforce remains stuck in the low 20s. The state stopped advertising for the positions, according to the lawsuit. One of the public health nursing job applicants, Sarah DeCato, submitted a resume in April but received a response from the DHHS human resources department that they were “not currently hiring Public Health Nurses,” the suit said.

Carson slammed the LePage administration for putting the public’s health at risk.

“Maine’s public health nursing service used to be our first line of defense against an outbreak of infectious disease, such as life-threatening strain of the flu, which we saw with the H1N1 in 2009. Yet today, fewer than half of the funded public health nurse positions are filled, leaving Maine children, families and seniors at risk,” Carson said in a statement.

“It’s unacceptable that the department continues to ignore the laws crafted in the Legislature to the detriment of Maine people. It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but Maine people deserve answers, and more importantly, a vibrant and functioning public health nursing service.”

The lawsuit claims LePage may have intervened, stopping the compliance with the new law.

“The department initially acted as if it intended to comply with the law, posting notices and attempting to hire nurses. In early 2018, however, something changed. While the exact internal communications remain a mystery – the department has refused to disclose them – the governor appears to have intervened,” the lawsuit said.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday. Maine DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer declined to comment, saying she couldn’t speak about a pending lawsuit.

Carson recounted a June 2018 meeting with Julian Baer, director of government relations and policy for Maine DHHS, in which Baer refused to answer questions before telling the senator, “You will not see LD 1108 (the public health nursing law) fully implemented within the next seven months.”

By then, LePage will be out of office. Democrat Janet Mills, Republican Shawn Moody and independents Terry Hayes and Alan Caron are vying to replace LePage in the November election.

Baer declined to comment when reached by the Press Herald, citing the pending lawsuit.

Carson, in a brief phone interview on Monday, said even though there will be a new governor, it’s unclear what will happen to public health nursing under the new administration. Meanwhile, he said, “every day counts” for those who are lacking services. Carson said LePage and DHHS officials have been mostly “hostile” to public health nursing.

“They don’t believe in public health nursing or understand the value of public health nursing,” Carson said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

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