Once again lawmakers have used problems at the Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center to score political points. Rather than hurling insults, the LePage administration and its supporters can help by ensuring lawmakers have the information they need to feel comfortable moving ahead with improvements that need to be made to the Augusta hospital so it can better serve the state’s mentally ill.
The LePage administration has long been pushing for a new facility for patients who the court system had sentenced to the hospital, so-called forensic patients. The plans for new facilities at Riverview have been everchanging. At one point earlier this year, the department called for building a place to house violent forensic patients at the Maine State Prison in Warren, then at a corrections facility in Windham. In the fall, the administration proposed that this high-security facility be at Riverview, although the administration refused to share information with lawmakers or city officials in Augusta.
What the administration is now demanding is a different type of facility for forensic patients who no longer need a hospital level of care but are not stable enough to be released from state custody. These patients currently fill beds that are needed to treat patients suffering from mental health crises who can now wait two weeks for a bed in a hospital emergency room. There is also a backlog of new forensic patients awaiting admission to Riverview.
However, the current plan for a secure forensic rehabilitation facility — the first in the state — has not been presented to, or approved by, the Legislature, which ultimately will have to find the money to pay for its operation.
Because of this uncertainty over what the administration has planned, lawmakers and advocates have been hesitant to sign off on any proposal. They want more time to get their questions answered. This has enraged Gov. Paul LePage and in a fit of pique Tuesday, he said he would build the facility in Freeport, Bangor or somewhere else instead of Augusta, where it needs legislative approval.
Instead of a temper tantrum, LePage should work with lawmakers to build support for, and ensure ongoing funding for, the right type of facility to meet patient and state needs.
While it is clear that a new facility is needed, and that it should be housed at Riverview, there are good reasons to proceed with caution. Basic questions about who will oversee the facility and how it will be paid for have not been fully answered.
“We appreciate the governor’s sense of urgency, but this Legislature — sworn in yesterday — is going to do its job and provide real oversight,” new House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, told the BDN on Thursday. “The administration may feel they want to move faster, but they should take responsibility and acknowledge that three or four years of mismanagement at Riverview requires three or four weeks of oversight by this Legislature.”
Taking more time was the general sentiment among legislative leaders at a meeting last week. Because many of their questions had not been answered by DHHS officials, those leaders voted 5-1 to table the project. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette was the only one in attendance to object. The others who attended the meeting and voted to table consideration of the project were Senate President Mike Thibodeau and Assistant House Minority Leader Ellie Espling, both Republicans, outgoing House Speaker Mark Eves, outgoing House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe and then-Assistant House Majority Leader Gideon, all Democrats.
Fredette then called for a vote to approve the project, which failed on a 3-3 party-line vote. This was not a rejection of the project, but rather a call to slow down and do it right.
Immediately, Fredette and LePage, accused Democrats of playing games by refusing to approved a much-needed psychiatric facility. Their press releases failed to mention that two Republican leaders were OK with taking more time to fully vet the proposal, which is the responsible position to take.
“If we take time to communicate just a little bit, we’ll probably find a solution to the problem,” Thibodeau told radio station WGAN on Thursday.
Daniel Wathen, the retired Maine Supreme Court justice who oversees the state’s compliance with a decade’s-old mental health care consent decree, is generally supportive of the new facility. But, he said, he still needs to understand how the operator of the facility will adhere to the consent decree.
Improving conditions at Riverview should be a top priority when the new Legislature convenes early next year. The LePage administration can best speed the process by directly answering questions and providing as much information as possible.