A Maine native who worked in health policy in both the Obama and Clinton administrations has been nominated to be the state’s next commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services.
At a press conference in Augusta on Friday, Gov.-elect Janet Mills announced that Jeanne Lambrew is her pick to lead DHHS, which has been racked by controversy over child abuse deaths, Medicaid expansion, welfare reform and the opioid crisis.
When Mills was campaigning to be governor, she says time and again voters told her health care was their top issue. It’s clear Mainers wants change, and she says Lambrew will deliver.
“I hope this announcement sends a clear signal to the people who have entrusted me with this enormous responsibility. I have heard your concern. I have found one of the country’s leading health experts to take us in that new direction,” Mills says.
Lambrew’s background in public health is extensive, from academics to policy. She led efforts in the Obama administration to pass and implement the Affordable Care Act. She worked on health reform in the Clinton administration, helping to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program. She has taught health policy at universities.
Most recently, Lambrew was a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank where she researched health care access, affordability and quality.
Mills says Lambrew has the skill, vision and determination to rebuild the state’s largest government agency.
“Maine needs someone with Jean’s expertise. To bring more health care, more effectively, to more people,” she says.
Lambrew, who grew up in the Portland area, says her goals are to solve problems at DHHS, foster what’s working, and seize untapped opportunities.
“Beyond expanding Medicaid, the state has available waiver actions to lower prescription drug prices and expand treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders. It could adopt best practices to provide more affordable health insurance for small businesses and families, and strengthen its public health preparedness,” Lambrew says.
The announcement of her nomination on Friday was met with enthusiasm by public health advocates.
“I think it’s brilliant, to be perfectly honest with you,” says Ann Woloson, executive director of Consumers for Affordable Health Care.
She says Lambrew has the experience to run the nearly $4 billion agency, which hasn’t been the most user-friendly in recent years.
“We hear from families every day who have real difficulties working with people in the Department of Health and Human Services, even trying to reach somebody within the Department of Health and Human Services to do something like enroll their children in health coverage,” Woloson says.
DHHS has had its fair share of controversies recently. The abuse deaths of two children last year prompted reforms to the department’s Child Protection System. DHHS has yet to implement Medicaid expansion, which was passed by voters a year ago. And it also has been criticized for tightening eligibility for welfare benefits, and for failing to provide adequate treatment to stem the opioid crisis.
Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice says Lambrew’s nomination is a significant shift for a department that has been decimated by the LePage administration.
“The Department of Health and Human Services has been understaffed, underresourced, and is in need of, I think, some serious reform,” she says.
Merrill says she hopes Lambrew will bring more collaboration and transparency to the agency.
The nominee’s fate now rests in the hands of the Legislature, which will vote on her confirmation after a public hearing. In written statements, Democratic leaders have already signaled initial support.
Mills says Lambrew not only brings the know-how to implement complex policies, she has the right mindset.
“I wanted to select a leader who has heart, who exhibits understanding and compassion, who will reinvigorate morale within DHHS,” she says.
And, Mills says, ensure it fills it core mission of serving Maine’s most vulnerable.