AUGUSTA — In a bid to win back federal funding, the state is proposing to build a forensic unit next to Riverview Psychiatric Center to treat mentally ill patients who have committed crimes and no longer require hospital-level care.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which operates Riverview, said the plan is to have the secure 21-bed unit completed in 2017 at a cost of $3 million to $5 million.

“One of the primary reasons behind the facility is to house those individuals no longer in need of a hospital level of care, which has been an issue when working to regain certification from (the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services),” Edwards said in an email Wednesday.

The concept of the unit was supported by several lawmakers, but they questioned how the state would pay for the project.

The federal agency that oversees Riverview funding revoked the hospital’s certification more than two years ago after regulators found numerous problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients; improper record-keeping; medication errors; and failure to report progress made by patients.

NOT THE FIRST SUCH PROPOSAL

However, the 92-bed hospital, which treats civil patients as well as forensic patients placed there by the criminal justice system, remains accredited by The Joint Commission. The commission is an independent, nonprofit organization that “accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States,” indicating the facilities meet certain performance standards, according to its website.

It’s not the first time the state has proposed building a separate facility to handle forensic patients.

In August 2015, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that creating a new, separate treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes might be the only way for the state hospital to regain certification, and the $20 million in annual federal funding that goes with it.

In May 2015, Gov. Paul LePage submitted a bill seeking funding for a 50-bed Behavioral Assessment Safety Evaluation unit, but the bill died.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Thursday he had not been aware of the department’s latest proposal.

“I’m not opposed to the department exploring this option,” Gattine said. “In all likelihood this is the kind of thing we need to do. I just wish they were clearer about what their plans were.”

He had a number of questions about the proposal, including how the state would pay for the building, which patients would be served, how they would be served and who would staff the unit.

He compared the proposal to an emergency bill that failed late in the most recent legislative session. It would have required the state to gather information and create a plan to expand the capacity to treat forensic and civil mental health patients.

“There is definitely a problem at the hospital,” Gattine said.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who is on the same committee, said Thursday she was “fully in support of” the forensic unit if the department has found funding for the proposal.

“This is something the department tried to do via the Legislature,” she said. “It’s just been rejected time and time again. Unfortunately, it’s been a party-line battle when it shouldn’t be.”

‘DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS’

She said a step-down facility with a more therapeutic model would benefit some patients who are essentially waiting for adjudication or other action, and could be separated from other forensic patients who can be “incredibly violent.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Thursday the plan “seems like a good idea,” but he had questions about the facility that mirrored Gattine’s.

“The devil is in the details,” Katz said. “Who’s going to own it, who’s going to operate it and what kind of patients will be placed there? The department has not given the Legislature much information to date on any of these questions.

“Particularly because this is in Augusta, I’m reaching out to the department to at least get a briefing for the Augusta legislative delegation. Many of us would like to see what the administration’s overall plan is for dealing with the severely mentally ill and how this proposal would fit into that.”

Besides its struggle to achieve recertification, Riverview has had difficulty attracting and retaining doctors, nurses and other staff.

The state filed a notice with the city of Augusta on Thursday indicating that it planned to apply for a permit under the Site Location of Development Act.

The notice said the plan is for “infrastructure improvements on the East Campus, including development of parking lots and sidewalks, and the construction of a new Secure Forensic Rehab Facility adjacent to the Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center.”

Matt Nazar, Augusta’s director of development services, said Thursday that the plans were due to be placed on the agenda Friday for the next meeting of the Planning Board, on Sept. 13.

Five construction firms submitted information Thursday that enables them to bid on the project.

David Heidrich, at the Bureau of General Services, which would oversee the construction, said the companies submitting qualifying packets were: AlliedCook Construction in Scarborough, Cianbro in Pittsfield, Consigli Construction in Portland, Ganneston Construction Corp. in Augusta and Sheridan Construction Corp. in Fairfield.

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

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Twitter: @betadams