AUGUSTA, Maine — Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew has appointed Robert “Jay” Harper, a veteran of state government, as the acting superintendent at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

The appointment comes on the heels of Mayhew terminating former Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen earlier this month for unspecified reasons. Riverview is a mental and behavioral health hospital that is run by the state. It has been the site of controversy in recent months, since it lost its accreditation with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the $20 million in annual funding that came with it.

Harper’s most recent role was as a patient advocate with the Disability Rights Center, where he provided support to Riverview clients to ensure the organization was in compliance with the State’s Rights Rules for Mental Health Recipients.

“Jay’s experience and his vision make him an excellent fit for Riverview Psychiatric Center,” said Mayhew in a prepared statement. “He believes in leadership that is team-based and focuses on engaging all staff in sustaining an environment that is recovery-oriented and offers the highest quality of mental health services and treatment.”

In 2013, as the Legislature debated a bill to expand a mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren, Harper urged lawmakers to instead focus on fixing issues at Riverview that were the source of a federal funding cut. Harper estimated at the time the hospital needed about $700,000 in additional funding to adequately recruit, train and retain existing staff.

Harper later continued his criticism of the measure in December 2013 when he told the Legislature’s Health and Human Service Committee the legislation they passed in August wasn’t working because most of the patients at Riverview who were the source of violence were ineligible for transfer to the prison system.

“The bottom line is that there would be very, very few people who would meet the criteria of the law to go to the prison program,” Harper said. “And that population represents a very, very small number of people who create the events at Riverview.”

He said for the state to regain its federal funding, it must “reverse the strategy” by moving the hospital from a correctional-type containment model and return it to a therapeutic program.

Harper said that shift was problematic because the underlying root of the violent incidents at Riverview was a result of having too few staff and undertrained staff at the hospital.

Harper holds an undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University, a graduate degree from Harvard University and completed the executive leadership program in mental health administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also completed the Maine Executive Leadership Institute at Maine Maritime Academy and holds a master of psychology degree from Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

In the past, Harper has worked for many years in state government in both Maine and Massachusetts, including as director of the Maine Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

“We are pleased that someone with such diverse experience and a leadership philosophy that aligns with our vision has joined our team,” said Mayhew.

Lewiston Sun Journal staff writer Scott Thistle contributed to this report.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.