The possibility that the facility might close and its patient load shift to Augusta prompted Bangor city councilors to form a 13-member regional group charged with the mission of keeping the services Dorothea Dix provides in the area. The group met for the first time Thursday afternoon at Bangor City Hall.
“The closure of Dorothea Dix in our view would be a public health threat, not only to the city of Bangor but also to the region,” Councilor Joe Baldacci said in opening the discussion. “We don’t have confidence at this point that there are other alternatives or resources that could really take care of people who don’t have insurance or who are indigent.”
Baldacci and fellow Councilor Nelson Durgin led the session with the help of Shawn Yardley, Bangor Health and Community Services director, who is an ex officio nonvoting member.
The tone of Thursday’s discussion suggested that there is little support for seeing state-run mental health services shift south to Augusta.
Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross was among those who did not think that would work. While he noted that most inmates at Penobscot County Jail suffering from mental health conditions receive appropriate services through a contract with The Acadia Hospital, “there is a certain segment of the population that’s not appropriate for Acadia and therefore has to go somewhere — and that somewhere is Riverview.”
Dorothea Dix, which has 52 beds, is one of two state-run psychiatric hospitals in Maine and it serves a five- or six-county area. The other facility is Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta, the only forensic psychiatric facility in the state. It has 92 beds and is newer and more modern.
“Over the last six years I’ve had a crusade of trying to get jail inmates into [Riverview]. Tons of time, tons of effort, tons of frustration but very little success and so if the option of closing Dorothea Dix is, ‘Riverview is going to pick this up,’ then I’m very worried about that solution,” Ross said.
“Dorothea Dix, to its credit, has tried to step forward and fill the void of what others couldn’t. While they took a lot of criticism about the escape of inmate [ William Hall, a Bangor murder suspect who ran away last summer], that was an example of Dorothea Dix trying to help when Riverview would not accept that inmate,” he said.
“Ultimately, when this happened, they found space but that’s a symptom of a system that is breaking at the seams and I’m very concerned about what it’s going to mean to jails, law enforcement and our dollars because these costs don’t go away, they just get shifted.”
Dorothea Dix Superintendent Linda Abernethy said that while she couldn’t speak for Acadia, she noted that psychiatric hospitals are not compensated for providing inpatient services for Mainers who are between 19 and 64 years old, which is the bulk of the population Dix now serves.
The idea of Acadia Hospital picking up some of the patient load also has been raised.
The state’s lack of a strategy troubled Dennis Marble, executive director of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
“Can’t we put the beat back on the leadership [of the effort to close Dorothea Dix]?” he asked.
“You really have to fully articulate exactly how you’re going to provide [a similar level of] services if you care about these people the way you say you do. I think we should simply demand a statement back [so that] not all the work falls here.”
Despite its vast service area, Dorothea Dix has faced the possibility of closure for several years, including last year. The hospital, however, got a reprieve last fall, when a draft report submitted by a statewide work group in charge of making recommendations about the hospital’s future said it should stay open, at least for now.
While Baldacci noted that Bangor, as host community, has taken the lead to keep Dix open, “we really need everybody’s help. We need to to do this as a regional effort.”
The group’s next meeting is set for Thursday, Feb. 9.