September 16, 2019
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Court master: Vacancies endanger Riverview staff, patients

BDN Staff | BDN
BDN Staff | BDN
Daniel Wathen, chairman of the Maine Turnpike Authority board, conducts a meeting, July 19, 2012.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Staffing shortages at Riverview Psychiatric Center will prompt a report from the retired Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who oversees the state’s compliance with a court order.

The state-run, 92-bed hospital on Augusta’s east side has struggled for years. The most recent problems culminated in Riverview’s 2013 decertification by the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, putting millions of dollars in funding at risk.

Riverview has a staffing shortage of 51 positions out of more than 364 jobs that should be filled, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the Maine Legislature’s Government Oversight committee, which is reviewing staff levels, on Friday.

Of those, 47 are direct-care positions, according to Daniel Wathen, the former judge who oversees Maine’s compliance with a consent decree that settled a 1989 lawsuit against the state over mental health services.

Wathen called that direct-care staffing shortage “the real focus of concern,” saying it may jeopardize patient and staff safety. He said he will be submitting a report to a Kennebec County court in February making recommendations on remedying staffing issues.

“In one sense, it’s a very simple problem,” Wathen said. “In another sense, the fix is very difficult.”

Mayhew and Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper told the committee the hospital is losing psychiatric staff to the nearby MaineGeneral Medical Center and VA Maine Healthcare System.

That’s not new: The hospital’s former superintendent made that argument in 2013. But Wathen has blamed it on a variety of factors, including salary, stress and danger of the job and a shortage of qualified applicants.

The hospital is using mandated overtime to cover staff vacancies, which can unexpectedly keep an employee at work for 16 hours. Nurses and mental health workers were forced to work overtime more than 460 times between January and September alone, according to a quarterly report.

That issue came to a head at an Augusta meeting Tuesday, when an employee said forced overtime has morale at “rock bottom,” according to the Kennebec Journal.

The problems at Riverview have led to political jousting between Democrats and the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage during the past two years. Last month, the administration initially refused to have Harper testify before the committee and Mayhew reported a scheduling conflict. The committee voted to subpoena both if they didn’t agree to testify.

Friday’s hearing featured some tense exchanges between committee members and Mayhew, with Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, saying while he appreciates efforts to fix problems, they’re “not good enough.”

Mayhew responded, saying “no one sits here today to dispute” staffing challenges and forced overtime.

“I am here because we want to work with you to identify ongoing recommendations that can continue to effectively support this hospital that is pivotal to the overall mental health system in this state,” she said.

 



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