AUGUSTA, Maine — Buried in the hundreds of pages of the proposed two-year state budget is language establishing a study of the future role and structure of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, but some lawmakers are concerned the study is a ruse to close the facility and shift patients to other facilities, including the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.
“My concern is that the parameters and the focus seem to predetermine the outcome,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the House minority leader. “The design of the committee implies that the plan is to close it.”
The proposal calls for a 13-member panel chaired by Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew with all of its members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage. There are no lawmakers included on the study panel that is directed to report to the Legislature by next December with its recommendations.
“I do have concerns with the makeup of the members of the study group. I think there has to be broader views,” said Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, the co-chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “I am encouraged that the budget does include additional money for community mental health in an attempt to comply with the AMHI consent decree.”
He said he has had several service providers and staff at Dorothea Dix approach him with the concern the study is structured in such a way to close the facility. He expects it will be an issue when that section of the budget has its public hearing.
“There is absolutely not a predetermined outcome,“ said Mayhew. “I had a long meeting with staff at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center to talk specifically about their thoughts and ideas for how to evaluate and improve services. This is an opportunity to do that.”
She said the focus of the review will be the patients who are served by the center and by the community-based services in the area. She said the goal will be to identify how to improve the quality of services while increasing the efficiency of the programs.
“This will be focused on the individual, on the consumer,” Mayhew said. “There are representatives of consumer groups and providers on this study.”
But Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said that with the governor appointing all the members of the panel — not the provider and advocacy groups and no lawmakers on the panel — increases the concern of many that the study is “cover” for implementing a decision already made.
“It is very concerning to me that there will not be any meaningful input from workers, from legislators, from other people from that area, “ she said. “This is similar to the section [in the budget] that sets up a commission made up of members of the administration to find $25 million in savings for the second year of the budget.”
Rotundo said the process used to study any issue is important, and studies can be designed to yield certain results. She hopes the committee changes the makeup of both study groups to broaden the views that will be presented and considered.
“There are consumer groups and providers on the working group,” Mayhew said. “This is a budget that gets deliberated by the Legislature, and I am more than willing to talk about the framework of this working group to assure that we have the best outcomes we can.”
Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett said the working group proposal was chosen to send a message that there has not been a decision made on the future of the center. He said that under Gov. John Baldacci there were steps taken to merge some of the administration of Dorothea Dix and Riverview, and the group may propose further consolidation in that area.
“All of our proposals are presented within the budget,” he said. “They will be massaged, modified and hopefully be strengthened within the budget process.”
The center, formerly named the Bangor Mental Health Institute, has a long history of attempts to close the facility going back to the administration of Gov. James Longley. It reached its peak number of patients in 1970 with 1,200 patients. The facility now has a maximum of 60 patients and the yearly budget is in excess of $15 million.