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

A new unit treating older patients with mental illness has opened at the Bangor campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Friday.

The 18-bed, single-story unit will assess and treat older patients with “severe and persistent” mental health issues, assisting them as they plan to return to their communities across Maine, according to DHHS.

The unit began accepting new patients this week. Several patients from the main hospital on the Dorothea Dix campus have already been transferred to the new unit, with patients outside the facility expected to move in soon.

It opens after years of political conflict over addressing persistent concerns about patient and staff safety at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which lost its federal certification in 2013 before regaining it in 2019.

The facility’s development began during Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, when it was intended to treat forensic patients — those found not criminally responsible for crimes they committed or deemed unfit for trial — who no longer required the hospital-level care given at Riverview.

The unit ended up in Bangor as LePage maneuvered to build a facility to relieve pressure on Riverview without securing state legislative approval.

In 2018, the state sold a 2.69-acre parcel on the Dorothea Dix campus to Hermon-based Ellis Commercial Development. That company oversaw the building’s construction and is set to continue leasing the facility back to the state for 30 years for $11.3 million.

The state switched the unit’s focus to treating older patients after Gov. Jan. Mills took office in 2019.

Those patients are prevalent across Maine, but had been scattered across hospitals throughout the state rather than served in a dedicated unit.

The unit is a few hundred yards from Dorothea Dix’s primary hospital and will share staff, services and administrators with the rest of the center.

Construction of the unit was completed in December after construction delays because of the COVID-19 pandemic, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell said.