AUGUSTA — The superintendent of the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center has been ousted after nearly five years on the job, following federal sanctions that have cost the facility millions of dollars in funding and raised concerns about the way in which dangerous patients are subdued.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew issued a statement Wednesday indicating that Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen was fired or forced to resign.
“In evaluating where Riverview Psychiatric Center is today and our vision for the hospital moving forward, I appreciate Ms. McEwen’s years of service and wish her success in future endeavors,” said Mayhew’s statement. “I felt that a change in leadership gave us the best opportunity to achieve that vision.”
Later Wednesday, DHHS spokesman John Martins said Dr. Brendan Kirby, Riverview’s new medical director, will take on the superintendent’s duties until an acting superintendent is appointed.
The 92-bed Riverview Psychiatric Center is Maine’s only hospital for forensic patients – mentally ill people who have committed violent or otherwise criminal acts and have been sent to the hospital by courts.
Riverview, which opened in 2004 and has about 80 patients, has drawn federal scrutiny over the past year for the way it handles patients who prove dangerous to the staff. Those practices have cost the hospital about $20 million in federal funding and its federal certification.
Regulators first threatened to revoke the funding in August, citing Kennebec County corrections officers’ use of stun guns and handcuffs to subdue aggressive patients. Shortly after that, state legislators passed a law to establish a mental health ward at the Maine State Prison where certain forensic patients would go for treatment. That ward opened earlier this year.
McEwen was named superintendent of Riverview in 2009, after David Proffitt resigned to become president of the private Acadia Hospital in Bangor.
On Feb. 19, she addressed a legislative committee that was formed last fall to address patients’ care and safety at Riverview. As the panel discussed the opening of the intensive mental-health treatment unit in the state prison, McEwen and others said the new unit would not relieve the pressure on Riverview.
She gave no indication that she would be leaving her position. A message left on her cellphone Wednesday was not returned.
McEwen has worked in mental health for more than 27 years and served in the Maine Air National Guard for 28 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in business administration. At one point, she was superintendent of Riverview and the other state-run psychiatric hospital, the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, which serves non-criminal patients.
Mayhew’s statement said the DHHS would not comment further on McEwen’s departure, but Riverview “will continue moving forward its efforts to reinforce a patient-centered culture that is focused on recovery, while ensuring safety for the clients, visitors and staff members.”
Helen Mulligan, a Boston-based spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has said that federal agency won’t recertify a hospital until the problem leading to a termination has been resolved and the hospital provides assurance that it won’t happen again.
In October, a state judge permitted Court Master Daniel Wathen to resume active supervision of the hospital in the aftermath of problems found by federal auditors. The court monitors DHHS progress in complying with a consent decree that settled a class-action lawsuit brought in 1989 by mental health advocates. The consent decree holds the state to agreed-upon standards of care.
Wathen’s most recent report about Riverview, issued last week, says the hospital will require more state funding to offset the loss in federal aid.
Helen Bailey, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center of Maine, which represents people treated at Riverview and others in the class-action lawsuit, said Wednesday that news of McEwen’s departure suggests to her that “things weren’t clicking.”
Bailey said McEwen’s departure did not surprise her, since the hospital has been “troubled for a long time” and “very often what happens is the top man gets changed.”
She said she hopes that Mayhew can assemble a leadership team to get the hospital recertified by the federal government, improve the staff’s morale and “have patients feel like they’re valued and staff feel like they’re safe.”
“Hopefully it will be somebody who can work well with people she’s brought on board,” Bailey said.
The hospital recently hired specialists to work with the nursing staff on maintaining a safe environment for patients and staff. The specialists were added in response to an attack in March 2013 by a patient who beat a mental health worker and stabbed her in the neck with a pen.
Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, which advocates for people with mental illness and their families, would not comment specifically Wednesday on McEwen.
“Our focus is ensuring that the highest-quality services are being provided at Riverview to individuals receiving treatment,” Mehnert said.
She said the group has had concerns that staff members don’t have adequate training and resources to do that effectively.
“We hope the change in leadership will provide the opportunity for staff members and patients to get the kinds of resources that are needed,” Mehnert said. “We have concerns about what’s happening at Riverview. Not any one person is to blame; it’s really about leadership.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Riverview’s series of difficulties is the latest in a “host of problems of mismanagement” in the DHHS.
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: