AUGUSTA – Lawmakers effectively killed a proposal Wednesday to move mental health patients who have committed violent criminal acts back to the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus and out of residential neighborhoods.
The decision came after the Department of Health and Human Services said it would cost the state at least $2 million a year to care for the 16 patients.
Bonnie Smith, deputy commissioner for programs at DHHS, told the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday that even if the state sold two houses on the former AMHI property to a private nonprofit that would house and treat the patients there, the federal government still would deny Social Security and other benefits to the patients. That’s because even though AMHI is closed, the houses there are still considered by the federal government to be on the grounds of a mental health facility.
“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Smith said. “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services does not recognize it, regardless of the owner, if it’s on the campus of an institution for mental disease.”
For more than 100 years, AMHI served thousands of mentally ill people from across the state. It closed in 2004, at which time the state opened a much smaller facility nearby — the Riverview Psychiatric Center — to treat the severely mentally ill.
Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, sponsored a bill to sell the two old “doctors’ houses” on the former AMHI campus to the nonprofit Motivational Services to get the patients out of two Augusta neighborhoods.
City officials and residents were stunned last summer to learn that the patients had been moved from the AMHI campus to group homes in two residential neighborhoods, on Glenridge Drive and Green Street, without any notification to anyone.
The state moved the patients — some of whom were found not criminally responsible for killings they committed — off the campus when their federal benefits were cut off because they were living in a state-owned facility.
“We understand when dealing with the forensic population the fear is out there,” Smith said, but she noted that the recidivism rate for these patients is “incredibly low, close to zero.”
“The first sign of stress, and the team responds quickly,” she said.
On Wednesday, nine committee members voted against the bill, with many of them saying the information from DHHS convinced them a sale would not solve the problem.
Susan Cover can be contacted at 621-5643 or at: