Iowa Senate rejects Mariannette Miller-Meeks for HAWK-I board

For six years running, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has confirmed almost all of Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s nominees unanimously or nearly so. But every year, one or two Branstad nominees don’t get through. On Thursday Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks became the first (and probably the only) nominee to fail an Iowa Senate confirmation vote this year.

Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist who has long practiced in Ottumwa, served as director of the Iowa Department of Public Health from January 2011 until January 2014, when she stepped down to run for Congress a third time against Representative Dave Loebsack in Iowa’s second district. She joined the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee last year and this past weekend was elected to be a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Branstad named Miller-Meeks to the Iowa HAWK-I board. HAWK-I is Iowa’s version of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and its board advises the Department of Human Services. All children enrolled in HAWK-I are affected by Iowa’s Medicaid privatization, and many families have had to find new health care providers after their children’s doctor did not sign a contract with one of the insurance companies selected to manage care for Medicaid recipients.

You can watch the Iowa Senate debate over Miller-Meeks here, starting around 1:14 pm. Some of the Democratic senators’ remarks explaining their misgivings are quoted in reports by Rod Boshart for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, William Petroski for the Des Moines Register, and O.Kay Henderson for Radio Iowa.

Listening to the debate, it’s clear this nomination was a casualty of Medicaid privatization. The Branstad administration rushed through the shift to managed care with no input from state lawmakers and not enough safeguards to make sure the insurance companies now handling HAWK-I don’t save money on the program by denying medical services. Republican State Senator Charles Schneider described Miller-Meeks as “uniquely qualified for this position” because of her background as a doctor and Department of Public Health director. Several Democrats expressed concern that she would not be a “champion” for children who may face service cuts. Miller-Meeks is a medical professional, but she is also loyal Republican. Nothing in her political background suggests she would be a tough watchdog on the HAWK-I board. I searched her Twitter feed and found nothing to indicate any worry about how Iowans on Medicaid would be affected by privatization, which has been one of the biggest state policy debates of the past year. Yet Miller-Meeks has often posted about health care policy, mainly in the context of opposing “Obamacare.”

Moreover, State Senator Herman Quirmbach recounted that in his work as a member of a Department of Public Health board while Miller-Meeks ran the agency, “I found that she had a distinct inability to listen, an inability to consult with regard to personnel decisions even when the law required her to do that.”

Quirmbach was alluding to the deep cuts in smoking cessation efforts Miller-Meeks tried to implement during her first year in the Branstad administration. She had to backtrack on plans to eliminate the agency’s top position in that area. Miller-Meeks also didn’t win friends in Democratic circles by falsely claiming during her last year in state government, “The No. 1 food item bought with food stamps in Iowa is Mountain Dew.”

The Senate Journal published the roll call on confirming Miller-Meeks. Four GOP senators were absent; the other 20 voted to confirm her, joined by eight Democrats: Chaz Allen, Tom Courtney, Jeff Danielson, Rob Hogg, Wally Horn, Kevin Kinney, Matt McCoy, and Steve Sodders. The following eighteen Senate Democrats voted against the nomination: Tony Bisignano, Joe Bolkcom, Tod Bowman, Chris Brase, Dick Dearden, Bill Dotzler, Bob Dvorsky, Mike Gronstal, Rita Hart, Pam Jochum, Liz Mathis, Janet Petersen, Herman Quirmbach, Amanda Ragan, Brian Schoenjahn, Joe Seng, Rich Taylor, and Mary Jo Wilhelm. To be confirmed, Miller-Meeks needed six more supporters for a two-thirds majority.

After the vote, Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix criticized Democrats for using “D.C.-style” partisan politics to block Miller-Meeks. The statement from Branstad’s spokesperson Ben Hammes struck the same note:

It is a shame that Senate Democrats would play politics with the appointment of Dr. Miller-Meeks, a decorated military veteran, medical doctor and Medicaid provider, and a former Director of the Department of Public Health. Instead of doing their job and confirming the appointment of a well-qualified doctor to the oversight board for Hawk-I, Senate Democrats chose to play petty partisan politics. Dr. Miller-Meeks was confirmed 48-1 in 2011 as the Director of the Department of Public Health. I am shocked that Senate Democrats would let partisan DC-style politics creep into our process while nearing the end of an otherwise productive legislative session.

Nice try, trolling Democrats for not “doing their job and confirming the appointment.” Hammes glossed over the fact that Iowa Senate Democrats held a committee hearing on Miller-Meeks and gave her nomination an up or down vote in the chamber. In contrast, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and his Republican colleagues have taken the unprecedented step of refusing even to hold a hearing on Judge Merrick Garland, let alone bring his Supreme Court nomination to a vote in committee or on the U.S. Senate floor. Hence the calls on Grassley and others to #DoYourJob.

Hammes and Dix both noted that the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed Miller-Meeks in 2011. However, even then quite a few Democrats quietly opposed her appointment. In fact, she complained in February 2011 that Democratic lawmakers were delaying consideration of her nomination. Her eventual lopsided confirmation vote was a function of Majority Leader Gronstal making his caucus pick their battles, rather than a sign of enthusiastic support.

That first year Branstad was back in office, only Isaiah McGee and William Gustoff failed to win Iowa Senate confirmation. In retrospect, it would have been better for Democrats to reject Teresa Wahlert. Confirmed as director of Iowa Workforce Development with only two votes to spare, Wahlert turned out to be a disaster in that role, probably setting a record for the number of lawsuits spawned by a state agency leader.

Although you wouldn’t guess it from reading Republican comments about “DC-style politics,” the Iowa Senate easily confirmed five other Branstad appointees yesterday: Ryan Wise as director of the Department of Education, Robert S. von Wolffradt as Chief Information Officer, and Helen Sinclair, Steve Sukup, and Dr. Christina Taylor for the State Judicial Nominating Commission. Wise drew just four no votes (Democrats Kevin Kinney and Bob Dvorsky, and Republicans Brad Zaun and Jake Chapman). The others were confirmed unanimously. Hogg introduced the Judicial Nominating Commission appointees and endorsed all of them as qualified for the job. Hogg is also running for U.S. Senate and couldn’t pass up the chance to do a little trolling of Senator Grassley after those votes:

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Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- GOP national delegate counters, take note: late last night, Miller-Meeks tweeted out a link to a commentary suggesting Carly Fiorina would be a good conservative compromise candidate for delegates to a brokered convention.

UPDATE: Reader Shawn Harmsen reminded me that while Miller-Meeks headed the Department of Public Health, its employees refused to list non-birthing parents in same-sex couples on a child’s birth certificate or death certificate. LGBT couples had to sue to change that policy, years after the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision in Varnum v Brien granted marriage rights to same-sex couples. The Department of Public Health appealed a lower court ruling in favor of the couple seeking to have the non-birthing spouse listed on a birth certificate. The Iowa Supreme Court eventually found in favor of the plaintiffs, saying “the Department has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for refusing to list on a child’s birth certificate the nonbirthing spouse in a lesbian marriage, when the child was conceived using an anonymous sperm donor and was born to the other spouse during the marriage.”

SECOND UPDATE: A truly absurd press release from the Republican Party of Iowa on April 15.

Gronstal’s Political Agenda Hurts Iowa Families

This Thursday, the Iowa Senate rejected Mariannette Miller-Meeks, former Director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, to serve on the Iowa Hawk-I Board. The Iowa Hawk-I Board advises the state on health care coverage for uninsured children of working families.

Chairman Jeff Kaufmann said this about the decision: “Mike Gronstal and his partisan destructive attitude towards anyone that has a slight disagreement with him is not what the families of Iowa need. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is a healthcare professional who knows and understands the complicated healthcare system. Allowing politics to get in the way of this nomination is Gronstal’s way of asserting his political agenda. In the end, the only people who lose are Iowa families.”

Under Gronstal’s leadership, the Iowa Senate has confirmed hundreds of Branstad appointees–many of whom disagree with Democrats on any number of policies.

An Iowa GOP State Central Committee member is never going to provide serious oversight on behalf of the 37,000 kids on HAWK-I.

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