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Failing Psych 101

Gov watch
By CAROLINE O'CONNOR  |  October 3, 2014

Governor Paul LePage ignored a press conference outside his office last Thursday, held by Maine Senate Majority Leader and government oversight committee member Troy Jackson, Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, and Portland representative Richard Farnsworth. The Democrats cited a sobering list of problems ranging from patient abuse to issues of funding that they claim characterize mental health care in Maine, and which Governor LePage has failed to address.

Most of the dialogue focused on the woes plaguing Augusta’s Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, which gained semi-national recognition when a CNN reporter came to the hospital last spring to interview Will Bruce. Bruce, who received treatment for paranoid schizophrenia at Riverview in his 20s, killed his mother after being voluntarily discharged from the hospital in 2006. 

In the press conference, Representative Farnsworth, who also serves on the state’s Joint Standing Committee for Health and Human services, declared the “ongoing crisis at Riverview psychiatric hospital shameful.” According to Farnsworth, “the Governor and his administration have had their head in the sand from the very beginning. They have refused to acknowledge serious problems at the facility, or take responsibility. Instead, they shift blame to the federal government for requiring the hospital to meet basic standards that hospitals across the state and nation are meeting each day.”

LePage signed off on an emergency bill in 2013 that allows Maine prisoners to be treated in mental health units within the state’s correctional facilities, even if an inmate hasn’t been convicted of a crime, or if they’re being evaluated to determine competency to stand trial. And yet, in a seemingly futile effort to distribute responsibility amongst services offered by the state, the bill suggests that those who are mentally ill and whom have committed a crime be treated at a correctional facility only if there is no space at Riverview.

Riverview is the only hospital of the state’s four psychiatric facilities to treat mentally ill prisoners—the hospital’s two wings were designed to house forensic and “civil” patients, respectively, and yet Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services website says Riverview closed to civil admissions in 2012 due to a long waitlist of mentally ill prisoners in Maine jails seeking treatment.

LePage’s bill expanded the mental health unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren, and created a government committee to study the relationship between the state’s corrections system and mental health services—and yet, none of the $484 million in state and federal funding LePage used to pay off hospital debt last year went to Riverview, because those funds were designated for the state’s 39 community hospitals. In August, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid notified the hospital that it must pay back millions of dollars in federal funding after losing certification last year. The hospital lost certification with the federal government after an attack on a pregnant health worker prompted two surprise inspections in 2013, which showed failures on the part of the hospital to ensure that patients are free of abuse, and to provide adequate nursing staff (among a litany of other dire charges). In response to the prospect of losing federal funding, LePage suggested that the state “go it alone, and not take federal money.” Lepage told reporters in July that “with the federal money, some of the fine print is so atrocious that sometimes we do more harm than good.”

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 See all articles by: CAROLINE OCONNOR

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