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Maine DHHS commissioner stepping down

Janet Mills (left) and Jeanne Lambrew speak during a December 2018 press conference announcing Lambrew's nomination to lead the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Mal Leary
Maine Public
Janet Mills (left) and Jeanne Lambrew speak during a December 2018 press conference announcing Lambrew's nomination to lead the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

The head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is stepping down after nearly six years on the job, the Mills administration announced on Tuesday.

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew was Gov. Janet Mills' first Cabinet nominee back in December of 2018. The Maine native had spent decades in government and academia, including helping to implement the Affordable Care Act under former President Obama.

But she's faced multiple challenges leading Maine's largest, most complex state bureaucracy. Lambrew is stepping down to work on health policy issues at a Washington, D.C., think tank and at Harvard University.

Lambrew oversaw the expansion of Medicaid to more than 100,000 Maine residents after former Republican Gov. Paul LePage blocked expansion for years. She also implemented a state-based marketplace allowing Maine people to choose health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, although the new system has had some initial hiccups. During Lambrew's tenure, DHHS also re-filled public health positions left vacant during the LePage years and tapped into federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to retain and recruit additional health care and direct care workers.

Lambrew and former Maine CDC director Nirav Shah led the state's health response to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Maine had among the nation's highest vaccination rates and the lowest death rates.

Mills praised Lambrew's service.

"Leading the largest department in Maine state government — one that touches the lives of nearly one in three people in Maine and deals with some of the most difficult issues we face — is not easy by any means," Mills said in a statement. "It brings with it immense and complex challenges, some of which we know we must continue to work on, but Jeanne has been a true leader and an unwavering source of strength and stability for the department and the people of Maine through some of our state’s most challenging times."

But drug overdose death numbers hit record levels despite unprecedented state investments in treatment as the extremely powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl became more prevalent in Maine and other states.

And DHHS child welfare programs continued to face scrutiny under Lambrew because of high-profile child deaths. It was a challenge that Lambrew inherited. But recent investigations from the Legislature's independent watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, reported that caseworkers and other frontline staff within the Office of Child and Family Services continue to report feeling overburdened and under-supported.

Starting next month, Lambrew will serve as the director of health care reform for The Century Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank focused on health policy. Lambrew previously worked at the organization before joining the Mills administration. She will also join Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health as an adjunct professor of health policy.

"The last five and a half years have been extraordinarily challenging and rewarding, with the department staff, Cabinet, partners, and people of Maine responding to a global pandemic, catastrophic storms, and human tragedies with skill, compassion, and results," Lambrew said in a statement. "More work remains to be done, but the department is well-positioned to continue its vital work.”

Mills' office said she will name an acting commissioner before Lambrew leaves unless a permanent replacement has been nominated.