AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is moving forward with a plan to build a new mental health facility adjacent to the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Augusta.
Commissioner Mary Mayhew says the plan will help the hospital regain federal certification and protect $22 million in federal funding. Lawmakers and patient advocates say they hope the proposal will work but they’re concerned about cost, who will run the new facility and who will decide which patients receive hospital-level care.
Mayhew says she’s confident the new 21-bed facility will help get the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital back in good graces with the federal government, which outlined a series of deficiencies at the hospital three years ago.
“This will help us significantly address that federal concern and get the hospital recertified,” she says.
The hospital lost federal certification in 2013 after an extensive audit that found numerous problems, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients, medication errors and failure to report progress made by patients.
The audit also found that there were too many patients held at Riverview who no longer needed clinical care, including those who had committed crimes but were deemed by a judge to be not responsible because of their mental illness. Mayhew says these same patients have not been cleared by a judge to return to the community.
Advocates for the mentally ill say they support improvements to Riverview, but without inclusive conversations, the proposal still raises “a ton of red flags,” says Jenna Mehnert, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine.
Mehnert agrees that Riverview needs to transition some patients to another facility. But she’s concerned that the LePage administration is moving forward with a proposal without consulting with patient advocates, including NAMI.
She also worries that DHHS, and not a judge, will decide whether a patient is moved to what Mayhew described as a “secure” facility. When Mehnert hears the word “secure,” she worries that the new facility will focus more on detention, less on treatment.
Mehnert says leaving those decisions in the hands of an agency desperately trying to regain federal certification — and the millions of dollars that come with it — will tempt ill-advised patient transfers.
“It can’t be someone who’s trying to control the internal workings at Riverview and make sure the state is still in compliance, because then it’s not about that individual and that individual’s mental health needs, which is what needs to be driving the ship — always,” she says.
Mehnert’s concerns have been voiced before by other patient advocates critical of the LePage administration’s response to Riverview’s certification problem. They say the administration has demonized patients who receive little sympathy from the public and a health care system that has long stigmatized their illness.
“It sounds like a good idea to regain certification back at Riverview,” says Republican state Sen. Roger Katz. “Of course, the devil is in the details.”
Katz represents the Augusta area and he has taken a keen interest in the plight of Riverview. He says he’s hopeful that the administration’s plan works, but he says Mayhew and the administration should be forthcoming as the project moves forward.
“The more information that the public has about this and the more information the Legislature has about this, early on, the better,” Katz says.
Rep. Drew Gattine, the Democratic co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, says the proposal might be the correct one. But policymakers still need more information, including who will operate the new facility and how much it will cost.
“We’ve been asking for these details for a long time now and we still don’t have much,” he says.
The new building is expected to cost between $3 million and $5 million. Mayhew would not say how much it will cost to operate it, but indicated that it would be run by a private operator, not the state. She says she hopes it will be up and running by 2017.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public Broadcasting Network.