AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s order for a hiring freeze within the Department of Health and Human Services has the potential to topple months of progress toward full-staffing at Riverview Psychiatric Center, according to the overseer of the hospital.
Courtmaster Daniel Wathen, a former Maine supreme court chief justice who monitors the administration of mental health services in Maine, said Tuesday that staffing levels at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta are improving and would be harmed by a hiring freeze.
“This is certainly no time for Riverview to be experiencing that kind of a self-imposed wound in its operations,” said Wathen. “Part of the reason that [Riverview] got into these vacancy rates they were concerned about three or four months ago is that the ordinary hiring process is so slow. … A hiring freeze, depending on who gets frozen, is a serious matter.”
Wathen said that, as of last week, there were nine nursing vacancies, two acuity specialist vacancies and one or two mental health worker vacancies at Riverview, which he said represented significant progress.
In February, after he found 51 staff vacancies at Riverview, including 23 of 87 nursing positions, Wathen ordered through a filing in Kennebec County Superior Court that the state take expedited steps to fill positions at Riverview or face additional court intervention.
Wathen’s position overseeing the hospital was established as part of the 1990 consent decree that resulted from a class action lawsuit against the state for its failure to provide proper treatment to people with mental illness.
LePage’s executive order, which he said he signed Monday, seeks to allocate funding for four bills he says the Legislature didn’t find adequate funding for earlier this year. One of the steps taken in the executive order is “managing personal services at state mental health institutions, which includes implementing a hiring freeze and other cost-saving measures department-wide.”
In addition to the hiring freeze, LePage ordered the transfer of “any remaining balances” in the Low-Cost Drugs to Maine’s Elderly Program and allocating money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine toward funding the bills.
The four bills at the heart of the controversy include a rate study for ambulance services, a needle exchange program, $2.5 million in county jail funding and $1 million for the raises at Riverview and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor. The Legislature said the first two bills could be funded by the executive branch within existing resources and that the raises would be funded from a $28 million salary account — which Democrats have argued was a funding source proposed by LePage’s finance department.
“Unfortunately what’s happening is the only money available is the monies in salary accounts. In order to give them all a raise I’ve got to take the money for the vacant positions, and therefore, there are going to be more vacancies,” LePage said Tuesday morning during his weekly radio appearance on WVOM. “They’ve asked that I do a wage study for ambulance drivers, but they didn’t ask to do a wage study at Riverview. They just demanded that I give money to Riverview people at the behest of a senator from Augusta who’s running for re-election.”
The ambulance bill LePage referred to, LD 1465, calls for a study of Medicaid rates paid to ambulance services, not a wage study for ambulance drivers.
Republican Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta, who sponsored the bill to provide the raises at Riverview, said in a written statement Tuesday that chronic staff shortages were the primary causes of “employee injuries, out-of-control mandated overtime, terrible staff morale and reduced patient treatment.”
“His criticism of the funding source is disingenuous because it’s the same way he funded increased pay for law enforcement in his own bill,” said Katz. “Now, he is placing these raises in jeopardy and creating unneeded uncertainty during a precarious time for hospital staff and patients. Furthermore, imposing a hiring freeze while we’re dealing with a staff shortage is logic worthy of Alice in Wonderland.”
Riverview has been in turmoil for years, especially since it lost its certification from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services in 2013. There also have been changes in the leadership, including in March when Riverview Superintendent Robert “Jay” Harper and Clinical Director Brendan Kirby both resigned for personal reasons.
Harper has been replaced by Rodney Bouffard, a state government veteran who was superintendent of the former Augusta Mental Health Institute in the 1990s and a longtime Department of Corrections administrator. Wathen said Bouffard has identified a long-term plan for fixing problems at Riverview and is making progress.
“There seems to be movement in the right direction,” said Wathen. “At this stage I’m encouraged and watching with interest.”