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Maine DHHS struggling to fulfill freedom of access requests from the public

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The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is updating the processes it uses to track and respond to Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) requests.

On January 12, the department published changes to its website, notifying the public that Scott Perkins was taking over the role of public access officer. Previously, Kevin Wells served in this role.

According to DHHS Communications Director Jackie Farwell, on January 12 the department “publicized Scott Perkins’ transition to public information officer on both its website and the broader state website listing Department FOAA officers.”

The staffing change was not announced in a blog post, originally published January 18 and later updated on January 28, on the DHHS’ website that outlines the changes the department is making in an effort to be more responsive to FOAA requests from the public.

The department notes that the pandemic resulted in “signifiant, unanticipated” work and also resulted in an increased number of requests for information.

According to the blog post, the department responded to 5,310 inquiries during 2021, an increase of “more than 15 percent since 2019.” The agency also reported it received 218 FOAA requests in 2021, with an additional 87 requests being carried over from 2020 and into 2021. Of the 218 requests filed in 2021, 32 were from media organizations. The department said 130 of the requests filed in 2021 were completed.

Of the 87 requests carried over from 2020 to 2021, 25 were from media organizations.

“Challenges in fulfilling FOAA requests have underscored the need to update the Department’s FOAA process to ensure responsiveness, improved time and cost estimates for reviews, and compliance with the numerous Federal and State laws that govern public disclosure of DHHS work and activities,” the department wrote in its January 18 blog post.

Specific steps the agency is taking to update its processes for fulfilling FOAA requests include conducting a survey of best practices used throughout state government. According to Farwell, the department is also “consulting with the Office of the Maine Attorney General on handling of legally protected information, and researching how to improve communication with FOAA requestors about the status of their request.”

Farwell further said DHHS is evaluating its “existing policies and electronic management system for FOAA requests to identify opportunities for greater efficiency and accuracy, including time and cost estimates.”

In February, FOAA liaisons from DHHS’ different departments will meet to identify “any additional opportunities for improvement.”

DHHS also notes in its January 18 blog post that it is factoring its new processes, as well as the additional number of requests it has received and the workload the department’s employees are handling because of the pandemic, into its response estimates.

The Maine Wire currently has four unfulfilled FOAA requests filed with DHHS. The earliest of these dates to May 2021.

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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