AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew met with backers of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center on Friday and pledged her support for efforts to keep the facility open and use all its space, Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci said.
“It was an extremely productive meeting,” said Baldacci, a member of the council’s ad hoc Dorothea Dix committee. “There is an unmet need, which we all agreed on. We want to analyze how that space can be better used.
“We’re still in the conceptual stage, but we have more flexibility working with nonprofit groups than the state itself, and she seemed very receptive with the approach we’re proposing because it’s a big cost saver,” he added.
Baldacci said the 16-member committee is interested in putting together a coalition of Dix center stakeholders, including area nonprofit groups, veterans organizations, community housing, community mental health services, the Maine Bureau of General Services and the city of Bangor.
Mayhew told the group — which included Baldacci, Bangor Health and Human Services Director Shawn Yardley, Community Health and Counseling Services Director Dale Hamilton, state Sen. Nichi Farnham, and Dorothea Dix Center Superintendent Linda Abernethy — there is no currently active effort to close the beleaguered facility, according to Baldacci.
She also indicated she would strongly support the coalition and be willing to have a representative from her office be part of the group, he said.
“She was interested in what that space could be used for in terms of providing housing for anyone with mental illnesses who may also be low-income or homeless,” Baldacci said.
The facility has has undergone a drastic reduction in scope of services, residency and funding over the past 30 years, most recently a $2.5 million cut approved by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee this month. It currently is operating with about 110,000 square feet of unused space.
Yardley, a member of the Dix committee, has suggested using the space as “a step-up or step-down facility housing option” that would give people accessing mental health services options for more intensive treatment while living nearby.
“Fifty percent of the general population that Dix serves are homeless and, according to Linda Abernethy, their average 24-7 stay is extended 50 to 60 days because they are waiting to find adequate housing,” said Baldacci.
Baldacci said the Dix center, which has served 350 patients a year on average and covers 60 percent of the state geographically, is licensed for 100 beds but maintained only 65 last year. The center is now down to 51 beds.
The Dix committee would like eventually to reinstate full funding for the center, which stands to lose nearly $7 million in state funding starting in 2013.
If Dorothea Dix closed, Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta would be Maine’s only public psychiatric center in operation.