AUGUSTA – The nomination of Brenda Harvey as the next director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services was greeted with loud and lingering applause at the State House on Friday.
But the clapping quickly died away as at least one member of the Legislature questioned whether she was the best person to fill the combustible post atop the state’s largest agency.
“The public might look at this and wonder: She’s been acting commissioner for four months and deputy commissioner for four years, and now she’s going to solve the problems,” said Rep. William Walcott, D-Lewiston, and a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, which will hold hearings on Harvey’s nomination.
Walcott went to great effort to limit his criticism of Harvey’s nomination, saying that he personally likes the nominee and thinks she’s qualified for the job. But he said he is concerned that her long service with the agency and her position as a senior manager means she’s too closely involved with the problems the next commissioner must resolve.
“I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that I think the next commissioner needs to be someone who hasn’t been a part of the (agency’s) problems,” Walcott said. “Certainly Brenda Harvey is qualified, but I don’t know if she’s the best choice at the time,” he said. “She could be viewed as more of the same.”
Harvey was named the acting commissioner in January after Jack Nicholas abruptly resigned. She has also served as deputy commissioner, acting deputy commissioner and the director of the Office of Program Development for the former Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services.
“The goal of this administration is to build a system of health and human services that is cost effective, of the highest quality and responsive to the needs of Maine people,” Gov. John Baldacci said during the announcement of Harvey’s nomination. “I know there are challenges ahead at the Department of Health and Human Services, and I am sure Brenda is the person to lead us through these challenges.”
DHHS has 4,000 employees and an annual budget of about $3.2 billion. The agency, which was formed by the merger of the Department of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, has been beset with problems. Beginning in 2005, a new computer system disrupted the state’s ability to pay service providers in a normal way, a problem that still lingers.
“I think the most significant challenge that DHHS faces, that I face, is to continue to restore the trust that what we say we are going to do is what we do,” Harvey said. “We’ve come a long way, we’ve made great strides” in fixing the computer problems.
Walcott said he hasn’t made up his mind on Harvey’s nomination and will reserve his final judgment until after the hearings.
“The commissioner is the public face of the department,” Walcott said. “I don’t think right now is the time to say, â€˜this person who’s been here is the best person to fix the problems.'”
A public hearing on Harvey’s nomination had not been scheduled Friday afternoon, but it is likely to come before the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee next week.