Funding for the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center would be maintained at about $56 million in the biennial budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage. That’s about the same funding provided in the last two years, and makes big changes unlikely in the short term at the state-run psychiatric hospital formerly known as the Bangor Mental Health Institute.
But the budget also calls for a LePage-appointed work group to make a plan for the future of Dorothea Dix and achieve $2.5 million in savings in 2013. While the specific areas of the cuts are not identified, some critics at Thursday’s public hearing before the Appropriations and Health and Human Services Committees expressed concern that the work group measure could spell the beginning of the end for the hospital.
Perhaps most succinct was Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, who serves on the Appropriations Committee. Martins said the makeup of the work group — which includes no elected officials and no front-line clinicians — seems to predispose it toward one conclusion.
“It appears to us in northern Maine that this is an attempt to close Dorothea Dix,” he said.
Mary Anne Turowski, policy and legislative director of the Maine State Employees Association, also protested the makeup of the work group, saying the voice of hospital employees is essential to understanding the role the 60-bed facility plays in the statewide mental health system. About 285 people are employed in inpatient and outpatient programs at the hospital.
The idea of closing Dorothea Dix has been under consideration in Augusta for several years. Other inpatient psychiatric hospitals in Maine include The Acadia Hospital in Bangor — a private hospital — the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, and the private Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook.
Betsy Sweet of the Behavioral Health Community Collaborative, which advocates for those mental illnesses, said politics and legitimate concerns about the strength of community-based services in the Bangor area have derailed earlier efforts to explore the closing of the facility. But the physical structure of the hospital is so old that even basic renovations are prohibitively expensive, she noted and reconfiguration of mental health services in the northern half of the state must be considered.
Elaine Ecker, executive director of the Consumer Council of Maine, which represents Mainers with mental illness, said the makeup of the work group should be expanded in order to ensure that the interests of northern Maine residents are represented in any planning about the future of mental health care in Maine.