AUGUSTA — Active court supervision of conditions at Riverview Psychiatric Center is no longer needed, according to the court master overseeing the implementation of a consent decree.

The court master, former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, recommended Tuesday that supervision be discontinued at the hospital, but maintained for the community-based mental health system.

The linchpin, he said, is additional funding that has significantly decreased the wait for community placement for patients ready to be discharged from Riverview. The money has opened up beds at the hospital for those who need them.

“It’s a critical resource, and important we use it at its maximum efficiency,” Wathen said.

The recommendation is supported by the state Department of Health & Human Services.

“This is a major change,” said Ron Welch, director of the department’s Office of Adult Mental Health Services. “It’s a major benchmark for our hospital.”

Wathen noted that conditions at the state’s mental health facility have been improving over the past five years, but that patients ready for discharge had been stymied many times because of the lack of funding for services, including housing.

“The recent funding that gives them the opportunity to move them out — whether they are on MaineCare or not – (it) provides a more durable remedy for that most serious problem,” Wathen said Tuesday.

The Legislature provided almost $4.7 million to the state Department of Health and Human Services for community mental health services for those ineligible for MaineCare, and almost $1 million for additional rental assistance for MaineCare and non-MaineCare clients.

Active court monitoring was part of a consent decree that settled a lawsuit brought 21 years ago by mental health advocates in response to dangerous living conditions and patient deaths at the state psychiatric hospital, then known as the Augusta Mental Health Institute.

The advocates wanted to ensure those with mental illness could get the help they need. Goals set in 2006 include provisions for “timely transition” to community placements “within seven and no more than 45 days from date of clinical readiness.”

Wathen’s report noted that for the past months, “there have been no more than one or two civil clients at any given point in time whose discharge was delayed beyond 45 days.”

With regard to the community mental health system, he wrote, “The two areas of continuing concern are related to the department’s inability to assign caseworkers in a timely fashion, to either those who are hospitalized or in the community; and its inability to reliably measure and address the unmet service needs of persons with severe and persistent mental illness.”

Those problems are also funding-related, he said.

Wathen’s recommendation will be reviewed by Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton, who has been handling the case. Helen Bailey, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center of Maine who represents the plaintiffs, said she had some questions about Wathen’s recommendation, which she saw in draft form, and that she is “looking forward to a conference of counsel” in the case, which is anticipated in late September or early October.

Welch said Wathen visits Riverview twice a week “and knows firsthand the improvement particularly since the new hospital was built. On the community side, it’s understandable that he would want to see what we do with money … for those who are not MaineCare eligible.”

The consent decree covers about 4,500 people – everyone treated at the Augusta Mental Health Institute or the Riverview Psychiatric Center since January 1988. The state has an obligation to serve others with mental illness by providing similar services, bringing the total number of people served to about 12,000.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: [email protected]