AUGUSTA — Officials at Riverview Psychiatric Center are not moving fast enough to fill positions and improve safety for patients and staff so the hospital can be recertified for federal funding, lawmakers said Wednesday.
Last month, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services terminated funding for the state psychiatric hospital after determining, through visits and surveys, the hospital was not meeting federal standards. The hospital faces the loss of $20 million in federal funding, which represents more than half of its $36 million annual budget.
“We’re talking about patient and staff safety, as well as $20 million we could lose as a state,” said Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, House chair of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, noting that the state has had six weeks to add to Riverview’s staff.
“We’re talking about an emergency here,” she said. “We have to find a way to get the system to move faster, because clearly we have to do better than six weeks and counting in an emergency situation. This is not acceptable.”
Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen said state officials are working to finalize, likely by next week, a contract with an agency to provide travel nurses to work at Riverview until permanent nurses can be found to fill nine vacant positions.
McEwen said once the contract is signed, it still could take a few weeks to find temporary nurses to fill the positions, adding that part of the challenge could be finding nurses “who are willing to come to Maine in the winter.”
She said shifts aren’t going unfilled, but staffers are required to work overtime. Workers are willing to pick up the slack, she said, but warned that extensive overtime can create stress.
It takes time to navigate the state’s personnel process to staff new positions in state government, she said, but Riverview and human resources officials are working much faster than normal. That didn’t seem to reassure legislators.
“That’s embarrassing, that six weeks is rushing things through faster,” said Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston. “We are where we are because the federal government said we were abusing patients’ human rights and putting staff in unsafe positions.”
Other steps that have been taken to address federal concerns at Riverview include having Capitol Police and Riverview staff members travel to the New Hampshire state hospital for training, and holding staff training at Riverview on how to respond to patient misbehavior, McEwen said.
She said Maine is considering methods that are used in New Hampshire to limit patient violence.
McEwen also said the state has identified but not yet filled additional staff positions for the Lower Saco Unit, where the most violent forensic patients are housed. In addition, it is continuing talks with the state Department of Corrections with a goal of establishing a mental health unit at the Maine State Prison by mid-February.
McEwen said a mental health unit at the prison could reduce the number of forensic patients at Riverview.
The state has appealed federal termination of its funding and requested an expedited hearing. Lawyers are expected to file briefs by Jan. 3.
If federal officials come back to Riverview to conduct what she called a survey, it would not be announced in advance, McEwen said.
Other steps meant to address federal concerns include having Capitol Police take over hospital security positions previously filled by deputies from the Kennebec County Sheriff’s office.
One of the deficiencies cited by regulators who inspected the state forensic hospital in unannounced visits May 8-10 was the presence of sheriff’s deputies providing security, which federal authorities viewed as making the unit less a treatment unit and more a punishment unit, McEwen said.
Security at the hospital was stepped up after an attack on a mental health worker March 16 by a patient. Mark P. Murphy has been charged with aggravated assault and assault following the incident in which he allegedly stabbed the worker in the hand with a pen and punched her repeatedly.
Federal authorities said patients are agitated by both the presence of deputies and the fact that they use stun guns to subdue unruly patients.
The contract for sheriff’s deputies to provide security has been terminated, McEwen said..
Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at: