AUGUSTA — Some lawmakers on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee on Tuesday were not satisfied with answers from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to a host of questions about Riverview Psychiatric Center.

The state’s 92-bed center has been the focus of intense scrutiny since it lost $20 million in federal funding — about half of its operating budget — when it failed a series of unannounced inspections by the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2013.

A corrective action plan was implemented, but another inspection found additional problems and the hospital remains without federal certification.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew did not attend the meeting Tuesday. According to her written answers, the state has reapplied for federal certification based on changes it has made, including the addition of so-called “acuity specialists,” changes in leadership and other specific treatment plans and procedures for patients.

In response to a question about the hospital’s recertification, Mayhew wrote that she expects a new federal audit soon that will likely determine whether the hospital will again become eligible for federal support.

Mayhew wrote, “(Riverview Psychiatric Center) has improved enormously over the past several months, and we continue to believe the hospital meets standards for certification.”

She wrote that she was confident that “significant improvements” would be noted by former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen and his consultants when they review the facility this month.

But some lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee had additional criticism of Mayhew and DHHS.

State Rep. Mike Carey, D-Lewiston, said the information from DHHS about what was being done to correct problems at the facility was far from detailed. Carey said the information from Mayhew could have been conveyed in a “couple of tweets” — referencing the social media platform that limits communication to 140 characters. 

Carey said the answers from Mayhew were not “a response to a massive problem.”

He added, “We need to have more information and accountability of where we are going and how this gets fixed.”

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, said the committee wants to work with the Legislature to solve the problems at Riverview. 

She said the committee had suggested it would find more funding and other solutions as necessary but wasn’t getting the response it needed from DHHS and Riverview staff.

“We are very, very eager to work with the administration to fix this problem,” Rotundo said. “But we need to have the administration engage.”

Rotundo said the message from DHHS seems to be: “Things are OK; don’t worry, it will work out.” She said the committee wants to know “what it is that is needed to provide for the safety of workers and clients.”

She said the ongoing loss of federal financial support had “enormous implications for Maine taxpayers” and the committee had to figure out “how we deal with that huge hole if we are not certified.”

State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said she continued to hear from Riverview staff that they felt unsafe in the facility. 

“Staff that work there feel like they are not safe and there is not adequate staffing on the ground even though it may look that way on paper,” Craven said.

Riverview houses some of the state’s most violent people with mental illnesses, and is the only one to house people who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible for their actions.

Over the past year, new allegations from staff and patients have escalated concerns among some lawmakers that DHHS has not taken reforms at the facility seriously enough.

The federal decertification was due to a range of issues, the most serious of which involved the use of stun guns and restraints on patients. Since the decertification and loss of federal funds, several changes, including replacement of the hospital’s superintendent, have been made. The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee last week voted to launch its own investigation into the problems alleged by staff and patients.

Former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who is responsible for overseeing the AMHI consent decree, is also investigating the hospital and its treatment of patients there. The consent decree resulted from a 1990 class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of former Augusta Mental Health Institute patients after poor conditions and overcrowding that resulted in several deaths. The consent decree required the state to establish and maintain a comprehensive mental health care system.

Wathen told the Bangor Daily News in August that he would conduct his next audit of Riverview in early October. As court master for the consent decree, Wathen has the authority to recommend fixes that DHHS must either adopt or answer to in court.

Conditions at the facility will be on the agenda of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee when it meets Oct. 15.

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