AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s watchdog Government Oversight Committee voted Thursday to subpoena Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew and Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper if they continue to refuse to address the committee’s questions about staffing shortages at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center.

According to Beth Ashcroft, who directs the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the committee’s requests to speak to Harper and Mayhew, which were made through Gov. Paul LePage, resulted in the committee being told Harper wouldn’t be allowed to testify and that Mayhew had a scheduling conflict.

Questions to a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman from the Bangor Daily News about the nature of Mayhew’s scheduling conflict were not answered on Thursday.

Some lawmakers said the refusals are merely more examples of a long-term pattern of the LePage administration blocking members of the executive branch from cooperating with legislative inquiries.

“My level of frustration is hitting a peak,” said Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, who motioned for the subpoenas. He called Harper’s and Mayhew’s failure to appear “appalling.”

The committee voted 11-1, with Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson of Chelsea opposed, to re-invite Mayhew and Harper to one of the committee’s January meetings, and if they decline within a 10-day deadline, to subpoena them. The vote comes on the heels of two LePage administration officials refusing to testify in the committee’s Good Will-Hinckley probe until they were subpoenaed last month.

Mayhew said in a written statement Thursday afternoon that for a state commissioner to “answer the beck and call” of the Government Oversight Committee is “ludicrous” and that her department has provided staff input and data about Riverview to multiple groups on multiple occasions.

“Instead of focusing on casting aspersions and making headlines, perhaps the committee could have picked up the phone, contacted my office and worked with my schedule to arrange a meeting,” said Mayhew in a prepared statement, even though LePage has a standing order that all legislative committee requests for executive branch employees must go through him personally.

“The assertion that the department has refused to address questions or clarify answers is patently false,” Mayhew said. “This process has been frustrating, duplicative and wasteful. … I wonder how many more hours have to be spent spinning our wheels and answering the same questions.”

Some members of the GOC said during Thursday’s meeting that written responses by DHHS to a list of the committee’s questions regarding Riverview were too general and didn’t allow for follow-ups.

Meanwhile, Justice Daniel Wathen, the court master who oversees the state’s compliance with a consent decree that mandates how the state treats mental health patients, told the committee Thursday that he will launch his own inquiry into Riverview’s staffing woes next week. If the Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t agree to take steps to fix the problem, Wathen said, he’ll take the issue to Superior Court.

Wathen said Riverview has about 25 vacancies in nursing positions and about 15 open positions for psychiatrists. He said the hospital is using overtime and forced shifts to fill the gap, which he finds unacceptable.

“This is among the toughest jobs we have in the state of Maine, working at Riverview,” said Wathen, who questioned whether Riverview should be operated “with overtime and mandated shifts.”

Wathen said he suspects that the culprit is a mix of factors: salaries that may be too low, the stress and danger associated with working in a psychiatric hospital that includes both civilian patients and those referred to the hospital by the judicial system, and a simple shortage of qualified job applicants.

However, he added that mismanagement is likely another factor.

“My belief is that they are trying to recruit staff as best they can … but this is a management and execution situation at this point,” said Wathen.


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.