New construction on the Dorothea Dix campus in Bangor is seen Friday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

State officials plan to treat elderly patients with mental health and cognitive challenges in the psychiatric facility that has been under construction for more than a year on the Bangor campus of Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center.

While former Gov. Paul LePage once intended the Bangor facility to house patients who needed an intermediate level of care after leaving Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, Gov. Janet Mills announced early last year that her administration was re-evaluating its purpose.

During a meeting last month of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, leaders of Dorothea Dix described the plan to treat elderly Mainers at the new 18-bed unit, for which they’re already seeking workers. They projected it would open in the middle of summer.

“The silver tsunami has hit already here,” Superintendent Sarah Taylor said. “So we are going to be seeing more older adults with mental illness and some neurocognitive issues as well. Right now, the current milieu is not particularly good for dealing with all the complex” medical, legal, social and other variables of caring for elderly psychiatric patients.

Officials hope that the unit will eventually employ 48 workers, on top of the 204 other positions at Dorothea Dix. It will offer a range of services including assessments, treatment, therapy and discharge planning, according to Taylor.

The state is now caring for a half-dozen patients between Riverview and Dorothea Dix who would be appropriate for the new unit, Taylor said. She gave the example of an older man with dementia now at Dorothea Dix who requires constant attention because he does not recognize when he may be crossing the boundaries of other patients who are “younger and possibly assaultive.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is not seeking any legislative appropriations this year to operate the new unit, according to spokeswoman Jackie Farwell. Last year, Mills said the facility would cost $6.9 million per year to run, with roughly $4.3 million of that from federal Medicaid dollars.

The single-story building has been under construction since the summer of 2018 on 2.69 acres that formerly belonged to the state, but that the LePage administration sold to a private developer.

Although the Mills administration is not using the building as the so-called step-down facility that the LePage administration had intended to open, the state is contractually obligated to use it as a residential care facility licensed for at least seven residents. The state is also required to pay the developer $11.3 million over 30 years to lease the property back, even though the LePage administration once estimated the project would cost between $2 million and $3 million.

Officials are now working with the state’s long-term care ombudsman program and the contractors who are building the unit to ensure it has flooring, colors and other elements that are recommended for people with dementia, according to Taylor. Its patients will stay in single rooms that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Brenda Gallant, executive director of the ombudsman program, said that the new facility will help lift some of the burden off Maine’s other state and private hospitals that offer psychiatric care.

“We think it will be a very positive addition to the services for older individuals who have a psychiatric diagnosis or need that short-term inpatient care,” she said. “We think they’ve done a good job of planning it. It’s a needed resource. It will be very beneficial in terms of allowing more access to this care.”