Bills to better serve Mainers with disabilities move forward on party-line votes

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AUGUSTA — Bills that would beef up both the internal and external oversight of the state’s care of people with intellectual disabilities and autism won party-line approval from the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday.

One bill would create an independent panel within the Department of Health and Human Services to review deaths and serious injuries. It was approved 7-4 by the committee, with Republican members in attendance dissenting. It would also require DHHS to hire a full-time registered nurse to review reports and work with the panel, and make annual reports to the committee.

Opponents said they supported a proposal by DHHS to expand an existing internal committee to look at those deaths and injuries, but Democrats noted that federal recommendations specify that such a committee be independent of the agency.

The other bill, approved 6-5, seeks to bolster the role of the Maine Developmental Services Oversight and Advisory Board, which has struggled to work with DHHS and has numerous vacancies.

The bills come in the wake of a federal report released last fall that found the department neglected to investigate 133 deaths and did not properly report critical incidents, including sexual assault, suicidal acts and serious injuries over a 2½-year period.

Although the oversight and advisory board already exists, DHHS has refused for years to send it any material – preventing it from doing trend analysis, for example – citing an instance where patient information was not handled correctly. In addition, the governor’s office has failed to act on nominations to the board, drawing down its membership.

Department officials have said they could not provide details on the nature of the data breach, other than to acknowledge it happened years ago.

On Monday, committee Republicans cited patient privacy as the reason they voted against the measure, saying all clients or their guardians should give approval in advance for their medical and personal information to be shared with the oversight board.

Board members pointed out that the department already regularly shares that client information with people outside the department, including representatives of the oversight board.

Both bills now move to the House.

Maine State House is the state capitol of the State of Maine in Augusta, Maine, USA.

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