AUGUSTA – State Health and Human Services Commissioner John Nicholas is quitting, touching off a search for a successor in one of Gov. John Baldacci’s most visible Cabinet posts.
Nicholas cited personal reasons, adding that the demands of years in government service have been “tough on my family.”
Baldacci said Wednesday that Deputy Commissioner Brenda Harvey will take over on a temporary basis and that he hopes to have a nominee to put before the Legislature during the 2006 session.
For the Baldacci administration, the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services, with a $3.2 billion annual budget, has been beset by problems ranging from accounting failures to delays in payments to service providers.
A DHHS computer system that went online last January has had software and hardware problems, prompting delays and inaccuracies in payments to many of the department’s 7,000 service providers.
Among the many roles of DHHS is to supervise MaineCare, the state’s name for Medicaid, the federal-state program that funnels about $1.3 billion a year in health care services to more than 300,000 low-income Mainers.
The governor, in an impromptu interview Wednesday, said the administration would “continue to restore the credibility, accountability, oversight and professionalism” of DHHS.
Nicholas, a veteran state administrator, said Wednesday that his work at DHHS “was a great challenge.” He said his resignation is effective next month.
“It was a tough decision,” he said in a telephone interview.
Nicholas served as Maine’s state budget officer from 1992 to 2002. He left state government to work as chief financial officer for Catholic Charities Maine, but returned to Augusta a year later and assumed the post of deputy commissioner of finance in what was then called the Department of Human Services.
Nicholas was named acting commissioner for the department in February 2004 and subsequently became leader of a new department that combined the state’s human services and mental health departments. The new Department of Health and Human Services opened officially on July 1, 2004.
The department oversees some 4,000 employees.
Baldacci credited Nicholas with contributing to “a tremendous amount of progress [in] consolidation and reorganization” of Maine’s human services programs.
He said Nicholas’ decision to leave was not a surprise, calling it “something that he shared with me a while ago.”
From 1986 to 1989, Nicholas served as director of finance and administration for the Maine Technical College System. He first went to work for the state in 1973 as an employment counselor for the Maine personnel department.
Nicholas is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and received a master’s degree in business from Thomas College, according to the administration.
Heading into the final year of the four-year term as chief executive he won in 2002, Baldacci has overseen a number of high-level transfers and departures.
In 2004, Baldacci successfully nominated his chief business regulator, Robert Murray, for a District Court judgeship.
Earlier this year, chief gubernatorial counsel Kurt Adams became chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Baldacci announced on Oct. 14 that Robert Spear would be stepping down as commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources.
This month, Lee Umphrey is winding up a three-year stint as spokesman and roving aide for Baldacci.