The proposed site for a 21-bed "step-down" psychiatric facility on the campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, off of State Hospital Drive in Bangor. Credit: Callie Ferguson

A private company the state has chosen to operate a new psychiatric facility in Bangor has asked to keep many details of its proposal shielded from the public. This is just the latest in the shroud of secrecy surrounding the project.

This is a public project, funded by taxpayers to care for vulnerable adults who are in state custody. The LePage administration has chosen that this work, which has been done by the state, be turned over to a private contractor. This brings out an inherent conflict between private business interests and the public interest.

It is not surprising that the contractor, Florida-based Correct Care, wants to keep its information, including staffing levels and costs, shielded from its competitors. But this conflicts with state government’s obligation to be transparent and to provide information to the public when it asks for it. The Associated Press received a version of the company’s proposal to run the Bangor facility through a request under the state’s Freedom of Access law. Much of the information, however, was redacted by the Department of Health and Human Services, leaving most important details unknown.

This situation is compounded by the fact that this project has been veiled in secrecy from the beginning. This is bad for taxpayers who will foot the bill, and for the patients who will be housed there with, so far, little information about how the facility will be licensed and managed — and paid for.

The Bangor facility could be just what the state needs to comply with federal requirements that will allow the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center to regain federal certification. Or, it could be a facility where patients are treated more like inmates with little emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, which could run afoul of requirements for how these patients are cared for.

We have no way of knowing because DHHS and the governor have shared little about their plans, with lawmakers, city officials, advocates for the patients who would likely be held there or with providers with expertise in operating the type of facility the state says it will open in Bangor.

This saga began five years ago when Riverview lost its certification from the federal government after reviews by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services revealed shortcomings in patient treatment and staffing at Riverview. The 92-bed center in Augusta treats and houses the state’s most acute mentally ill patients. It is the only state-owned facility to house patients who are deemed either incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible for their actions and who have been ordered by a court to be housed in a state mental health facility.

Some of the patients at Riverview do not need a hospital-level of care and would be better served at a less restrictive facility. Moving these patients out of Riverview would also free up beds for people who need its high-level of treatment, but who are often held in emergency rooms when the state hospital is full.

Initially, the LePage administration proposed to build a new step-down facility in Augusta since keeping it in close proximity to Riverview makes sense from a treatment perspective. Building such a facility in Augusta requires approval from the Legislature.

Rather than work with lawmakers to get this approval, Gov. Paul LePage said he’d build it in Bangor. Since then, DHHS officials have skipped meetings with lawmakers and refused to answer questions, preventing lawmakers from exercising their oversight responsibility.

LePage also said he didn’t need the Legislature to approve funding for the facility because it would be funded with money already in the DHHS budget. It is unclear to lawmakers who oversee the department and who finalize the state budget where that money would come from.

A bill to require that the facility be built in Augusta and operated under standards to be set by DHHS, failed when House Republican lawmakers stood with LePage to uphold his veto last year.

This allowed the LePage administration to move ahead with a secretive, private facility with unknown operational standards and an unknown funding source.

This is government, and public accountability, at its worst.

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