Government

Senate refuses to confirm one Branstad appointee

Mariannette Miller-Meeks, former Iowa Director of Public Health, photographed Oct. 10, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Mariannette Miller-Meeks, former Iowa Director of Public Health, photographed Oct. 10, 2014, in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A group of Democratic senators Thursday refused to confirm Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointment of Marianette Miller-Meeks as a member of a state advisory board the oversees an insurance program for Iowa’s low-income children.

The nomination of Miller-Meeks, 60, of Ottumwa, to the state HAWK-I board garnered support from 20 Republicans and eight Democrats, but another 18 Democrats voted no which meant she failed to achieve at least 34 affirmative votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed for Senate confirmation. Four GOP senators were absent for confirmation votes in which 36 other Branstad appointees were approved by 46-0 verdicts and Ryan Wise was approved 42-4 as director of the state Department of Education.

Miller-Meeks, a licensed ophthalmologist and retired Army Reserve officer, served as director of the state Department of Public Health under Branstad from 2011 to 2013 and three times lost of Democrat Dave Loebsack in the 2nd congressional district – in the 2008, 2010 and 2014 general elections.

Critics expressed concern about her time as Branstad’s state public health agency chief and her approach as a public member on a state board that provides direction to the state Department of Human Services on the development, implementation and ongoing administration of the state’s children’s health insurance program at a time when the governor is moving Medicaid services to privately managed care.

“I have grave concerns about this appointment. We need a HAWK-I board member that has a strong knowledge of the health insurance programs that will advocate for affordable, accessible, comprehensive care for children and not just worry about the reduction in services and the bottom-line costs, especially in this period of transition to a managed care environment,” said Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City. “This is not a fit that I think is good for HAWK-I or the state of Iowa, especially in this change.”

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said the HAWK-I program needed a “champion” at a time when it is being dismantled by the Branstad administration and called on the governor to send the Senate a strong children’s advocate, while Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said Miller-Meeks displayed weaknesses in her commitment, her listening skills and her failure to consult with others regarding personnel decisions during his interactions with her when she directed the state Department of Public Health.

However, Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, defended Miller-Meeks as a health-care professional who serves Medicaid patients in her practice and has donated medical care to military veterans.

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He noted that senators previously confirmed her in 2011 as state health department director and believed she now would be “equipped with knowledge, expertise and experience needed” in advising the state regarding Iowa’s most-vulnerable children. “She is not only well qualified for this position, she is uniquely qualified for this position,” he said.

After the Senate vote to block her confirmation, Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock called Miller-Meeks a “very upstanding, capable and clearly qualified woman in this area” who served her country proudly but was the victim of partisan politics in the Iowa Senate on Thursday.

“It just appears to me that this is nothing but partisan politics and that’s truly unfortunate when such a qualified person is willing to step up and serve Iowa,” Dix said.

Ben Hammes, Branstad’s communications director, expressed “shock” over Thursday’s confirmation outcome, calling it “D.C.-style politics” creeping into the legislative process at the close of an otherwise productive session.

“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,” Hammes said in a statement.

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