The newly completed psychiatric unit at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor is pictured Jan. 11. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A newly built facility on the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center campus in Bangor is set to open later this month, housing older patients with severe mental illness from across Maine.

The 18-bed unit’s opening will cap years of political wrangling over how to address persistent concerns about staff and patient safety at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which lost its federal certification in 2013 before regaining it in 2019.

The Bangor facility had long been intended to house forensic patients who have been found not criminally responsible for crimes they have committed or have been deemed unfit for trial, but who no longer need the restrictive, hospital level of care provided at Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The single-story building ended up in Bangor as former Gov. Paul LePage’s administration maneuvered to build a facility to relieve pressure on Riverview without securing state legislative approval. Ultimately, the state sold a 2.69-acre parcel on the Dorothea Dix campus to a Hermon development company, which oversaw construction and is now leasing the facility back to the state for 30 years at a cost of $11.3 million.

The facility’s purpose changed to serving older adults once Gov. Janet Mills took office in 2019, as state health officials examined aspects of the state’s mental health infrastructure that needed to be addressed. The opening is expected later this month, Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed.

“We are going to be seeing more older adults with mental illness and some neurocognitive issues as well,” Dorothea Dix Superintendent Sarah Taylor told lawmakers in January 2020. “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.”

Dorothea Dix leadership projected at that time — shortly before the coronavirus pandemic — that the new facility would open by the middle of last summer.

The facility will offer several services, including therapy, assessments and discharge planning. Mills has said the facility will cost about $6.9 million a year to run, with the federal government paying the bulk of the cost through Medicaid. Last year, the state expected to eventually recruit 48 workers to staff it.

The unit will help to house a reasonably large population, taking pressure off Riverview, other Dorothea Dix units and hospitals across Maine that serve psychiatric patients, said Dan Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who is the court-appointed watchdog for Maine’s mental health system.

With a new designated place for older patients, hospitals across the state will be able to treat other groups that need care, Wathen said. One of those groups is a growing number of forensic patients, he said.

“I have no doubt that they’ll be able to fill [this new unit] quickly,” he said.