AUGUSTA (AP) – State officials have less than two weeks to decide whether to appeal a judge’s latest order to improve treatment programs for mental patients, Chief Deputy Attorney General Linda Pistner told a legislative committee Wednesday.

No final decision has been made on whether to appeal all, part or none of Superior Court Chief Justice Nancy Mills’ order relating to Augusta Mental Health Institute patients. The state has until the end of the month to decide.

In a sternly worded ruling, Mills on Sept. 10 ordered that a receiver be appointed to operate AMHI in order to comply with a 13-year-old agreement to make improvements in a number of treatment areas, such as staffing ratios and community-based programs.

Pistner said the state’s lawyers can’t find any other case in which a Maine state agency has been ordered into receivership.

The yet-to-be appointed receiver would report to the court master in the AMHI case, former Maine Chief Justice Daniel Wathen.

The AMHI consent decree was on a packed agenda of issues before the Health and Human Services Committee as it met for the first time since June. Committee leaders said the consent decree took on new urgency following Mills’ decision.

State services for the mentally ill have been provided since 1990 under the shadow of the consent decree, which was issued a year after a class action suit claimed the state had fallen short of its responsibility to provide adequate care and ensure proper conditions for patients.

“After twelve years and extraordinary expenditures of state funds, the defendants have failed to comply with the important provisions of the Consent Decree,” Mills wrote in her latest order.

Within a few months, AMHI will be replaced by a new $33 million facility.

“For 13 years, the court has given due deference to the defendants’ efforts to comply with their obligations. … This deference has gone unrewarded,” the judge wrote.

The Senate chairman of the committee which oversees mental health services, Portland Democrat Michael Brennan, said Tuesday he shared “the breadth of concern of Judge Mills’ decision.”

Another committee member, Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, asked whether there may be a better way to provide mental health services, given the state’s past failures.

Martin asked if there are too many administrators in private firms contracted by the state to provide services. He suggested it might be better for the state to use fewer private contractors. “Should the state be in the business at all?” he asked.

The latter question drew a sharp response outside the committee room from Ronald Welch, a former state mental health official who is now executive director of the Maine Association of Mental Health Services.

Welch said people who use state mental health services would strongly object to the state’s withdrawal from services it has long provided.

“We have arrived at these services because they are predicated on need,” he said. “The Legislature has over the years been very quick to do the right thing when it comes to serving people with mental illness.”

AP-ES-09-17-03 1536EDT

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