AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage made an explosive but unsupported suggestion on Tuesday that federal decertification of the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center was “political retaliation” by former President Barack Obama’s administration.
But Daniel Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who serves as Riverview’s court-mandated watchdog called the Obama administration’s 2013 move “justified.”
The Republican governor made the claim in an interview with WVOM, saying decertification was because of the administration’s rejection of Medicaid expansion, a pillar of the Affordable Care Act ushered in by the former Democratic president that has been vetoed six times by LePage.
LePage has a friendlier president in Republican Donald Trump, and he said the subject of Riverview came up in a meeting last week between him, Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The facility was decertified for a range of reasons, including the use of corrections officers who were found to be using stun guns, pepper spray and other restraint tactics. Subsequent audits by the U.S. Centers for Medicaid Services found staffing and paperwork problems, many but not all of which have been corrected.
But LePage cited a new reason Tuesday, accusing Obama and his administration of punishing Maine through Riverview.
“Tom Price was very, very receptive to our case about Riverview,” LePage said during the radio interview. “They’re looking into whether it was a political retaliation because we didn’t expand Medicaid. This was a move by the Obama administration to poke us in the eye. This was nothing but a political move.”
At risk is more than $20 million per year in federal Medicaid money that supports the hospital, funding that state officials have feared could be withdrawn or taken back by the federal government.
However, LePage predicted the Trump administration will be “common-sense people and we’re going to get Riverview recertified.”
But Wathen, who oversees Maine’s compliance with a settlement under an 1989 lawsuit against the state over mental health services, called “the initial action of decertifying justified and needed.”
Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who has been the Democrats’ foil of LePage for years on health and human services issues, said the Republican governor’s latest comments ignore the reality of the situation: that his administration is largely responsible for the decertification and has been reluctant to work with the Legislature on bipartisan solutions.
“To say that it was political retribution for our decision not to expand Medicaid ignores the facts,” Gattine said. “I would challenge anybody to bring forward any evidence that that’s the case.”
Efforts to confirm LePage’s account of the meeting with Price’s office weren’t successful on Tuesday, though DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said in an email that Riverview was discussed with Price.
Edwards said any prospect of recertification doesn’t change the department’s plans to build a new facility in Bangor to house forensic patients or people deemed not guilty of criminal acts or unfit for trial. The LePage administration has pitched it as the state’s best hope for recertification.