AUGUSTA — Gone are the cargo pants and rolled-up shirtsleeves from when he was a patient advocate at Riverview Psychiatric Center.

Jay Harper arrives for work as the hospital’s acting superintendent in a tie and suit.

“I went from being an advocate in the back room reading the record to the superintendent’s role,” Harper said Thursday as he talked about his vision for helping patients and bringing the hospital back into compliance with federal regulators. It was his second day on the job. Even as his computer, phone and email was being set up, Harper was in the office and walking the halls, talking to people and setting priorities.

“I think of myself as an advocate,” Harper said. “The best clinicians, the best doctors, advocate for the tools that they need so they get the best outcome for their patients.” Harper says he wants to make the whole organization “inclusionary and transparent” and work with educators, the business community and others to help patients.

“There’s probably no groups we can’t figure out how to use resources from,” he said.

His approach includes cooperating with NAMI Maine, formerly the Maine chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, which works to help build “better lives for the one in four Mainers who are affected by mental illness,” as well as the Disability Rights Center, which provides advocacy services to Maine residents with disabilities.

Harper had to resign his post on the board of NAMI Maine when he came out of retirement to become acting superintendent. Now 64, he retired on Dec. 31 as a patient advocate at Riverview.

He figures he spent 70 days away from Riverview as a retiree and said the length of his new role has not yet been discussed. His hiring was announced Wednesday by Department of Heath and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. Last week, Mayhew ousted Mary Louise McEwen from the superintendent’s job, saying a change in leadership was needed. Harper said he’ll seek ideas from the entire Riverview staff, including mental health workers who spend large parts of each day with patients, for responding to criticism by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which pulled federal funding – estimated at $20 million annually – last September.

Harper also wants to address high staff turnover and work toward exceeding minimum federal standards for operating the facility.

The hospital employs about 300 people, all but 30 of whom work in the Augusta building. The hospital had 83 patients Thursday, 45 of them civil and 38 forensic, those who are in because of crime-related issues. He also spoke of making the hospital safer for patients and staff.

A spate of staff injuries caused by patients – including an attack on a mental health worker a year ago that left her beaten and a pen point embedded in her hand – led the hospital to bring in corrections officers to watch individual patients. Those officers were armed with stun guns for the first few months. .

Harper said his immediate plan is to obtain federal recertification for three of the hospital’s four units – two of them civil and one forensic, and then work toward certification of the fourth unit. The fourth unit, Lower Saco, houses patients with the most severe mental illness and behavioral problems, and has had the most trouble. “My desire is to do the three and the one as close together as possible,” Harper said. He said that is important from the perspective of fairness to the patients.

Riverview admits about 300 people a year – some for short periods for evaluation or stabilization – and it also has an outpatient unit. The hospital is licensed by the state and was recently certified by the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization which “accredits and certifies more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States,” according to its website.

Now it’s back to the federal regulators, who will do an assessment at the hospital. “They determine whether the quality of service is such that they’re willing to reimburse you for it,” he said.

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com

Twitter: @betadams