AUGUSTA — A LePage administration proposal to house some violent or disruptive mental health patients at a special unit at the Maine State Prison would likely affect only a few patients, the superintendent of Riverview Psychiatric Center told lawmakers Wednesday.

Jay Harper, who oversees the 92-bed hospital, also sought to refute claims from opponents who say the proposal would effectively criminalize mental illness. He told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee that removing dangerous patients from Riverview was a matter of life and death.

“Tough decisions will have to be made,” he said. “If not, eventually, somebody will be killed at Riverview.”

Harper’s comments came during a public hearing on a bill that would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to send so-called forensic patients – those whom a judge has deemed incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible – to the Intensive Mental Health Unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren. The LePage administration continues to grapple with problems at Riverview, which faces staffing shortages and the loss of federal certification that jeopardizes an estimated $20 million annually in federal reimbursements. The administration has been sharply criticized by Democrats and advocates for patients with mental illness, who contend that its proposals to solve Riverview’s problems lack details or an understanding of how to treat mental illness.

The criticism continued Wednesday as lawmakers took testimony on a bill that the administration acknowledged would only partially address Riverview’s problems. Several patient advocates said the bill was the wrong solution for patients who suffer illness that can lead them to commit violent acts.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of Maine’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the proposal would further dehumanize patients while subjecting them to a corrections level standard of care.

“You’re taking our most vulnerable people and putting them with inmates,” she said. “There’s a big difference between someone with criminal intent and someone with mental illness who has been found by a judge to be not criminally responsible for their actions.”

The unit in Warren was created in 2013 after the administration told lawmakers that it would help Riverview secure its federal certification. The administration had proposed putting some forensic patients there, but the proposal was rejected after patient advocates raised concerns. The bill heard Wednesday, L.D. 1577, is the administration’s second attempt to use the Warren unit to house certain forensic patients.

“This is not an attempt to criminalize mental illness,” said Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the bill’s lead sponsor. Sanderson said the bill would help ensure that other patients at the 92-bed hospital in Augusta receive appropriate care.

Harper said clinical safeguards would be put in place at the unit in Warren to ensure that the patients’ cases are reviewed by psychiatrists or psychologists. Those placed there would receive a review every six months and could be returned to Riverview.

The problems at Riverview have become entangled in State House politics. The LePage administration and Democrats continue to exchange blame over the state’s failure to regain federal certification for the center.

Harper told lawmakers that the bill is unlikely to convince the federal government to recertify Riverview, but added that the proposal would help ensure that other patients there can receive care in a safer setting.

Last month, LePage suggested during a radio interview that forensic patients could be housed at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the borrowing authorization, from $85 million to $165 million, to expand and rehabilitate the Windham facility.

DHHS also has pushed for a separate unit for all forensic patients at Riverview. A proposal was introduced last year at the end of the legislative session, but never acted upon after lawmakers cited a lack of detail.

In August, DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew told the Press Herald that she remained convinced that a separate facility for forensic patients is the only way to ensure recertification at Riverview.