Maine state employees are up in arms over a lawmaker’s proposal this week to close the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor to save money in the beleaguered state budget. Brenda Harvey, commissioner of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday that it would be irresponsible to shut down the former Bangor Mental Health Institute on short notice without full consideration of all the impacts, but added that a study commission might undertake such a review in the near future.
The Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center provides about 60 inpatient beds and a number of outpatient services for individuals with mental illnesses. It has an annual budget of about $30 million — about $12 million from the state’s General Fund, with federal matching dollars making up the balance.
Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, proposed the shutdown of the facility on Tuesday during a budget debate in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, of which he is the Senate chairman.
“I’m pretty serious about it. We have to find new money somewhere,” Brannigan said Wednesday, referring to lawmakers’ efforts to reconcile a $569 million shortfall in Gov. John Baldacci’s biennial budget. “We’ve got to run everything just as tight as we can.”
Brannigan said the cost of keeping the venerable Bangor hospital open is disproportionate to the number of people it serves and proposed a two-step process to take it off the state’s books. He said the administration of Dorothea Dix could be merged with the administration of the state’s other public psychiatric hospital, Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. That change could be accomplished by July 1 of this year, he said, saving money without eliminating inpatient or outpatient services.
In July 2010, the Dorothea Dix center could close altogether, once other arrangements were made for individuals now being treated there, Brannigan said.
Brannigan, who acknowledged that psychiatric beds in Maine often are hard to come by, said he did not have an answer for where patients treated at Dorothea Dix would find care if the institution closes.
A statement issued Wednesday by the Maine State Employees Association, the union representing state workers, urged its members to lobby against Brannigan’s “flawed proposal.” Not only would the closure jeopardize inpatient care and outpatient programs such as counseling, medication management and dentistry, it also would cause some 300 state workers to lose their jobs, the union said.
The statement compared the proposed closure to the recent privatization of the nearby Elizabeth Levinson Center for disabled children, which so far has saved the state far less than anticipated.
Harvey said Wednesday that neither she nor the governor would support a precipitous closure of the Dorothea Dix center.
“If we’re going to do it, we ought to do it in a more thoughtful process,” she said. A soon-to-be appointed study commission charged with finding savings in DHHS programs could undertake a review of the facility in the near future, she said, but not until after lawmakers identify and adopt the needed budget reductions.