AUGUSTA – A 21-bed forensic unit the state is proposing to build at the Riverview Psychiatric Center would be privately operated, raising concerns among lawmakers who have debated several bills to address chronic staffing and safety problems at the Augusta hospital.

The Department of Health and Human Services will use a bidding process to select a company to run the unit for patients who have committed crimes, spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said. The company that builds the center also will be chosen by a bid process.

The unit, which is expected to open in 2017, is a part of an effort by DHHS to regain federal certification for Riverview and the $20 million in annual funding that comes with it. In 2013, after Riverview failed several inspections, federal regulators decertified the hospital, which houses some of the state’s most violent mentally ill patients, including many who have committed crimes.

The new facility would alleviate pressure at the 92-bed hospital by taking forensic patients who don’t require hospitalization.

Edwards said construction and operating costs for the new building, expected to cost $3 million to $5 million, would be paid from within existing resources at DHHS, and the department does not need to have legislation passed to move forward.

But state lawmakers on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and the budget-writing Appropriations Committee said Friday that they still have many questions for the department.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chair of the committee, wants to know how the department has come up with the money to build the new facility.

“How is this being funded and where is it coming from?” Gattine said. “Let’s just rewind to a month ago and the governor is wanting to call us into a special session because he said he didn’t have the money he said he needed to pay for employee raises at Riverview, and now what they seem to be saying is they have $3 to $5 million, is this money they saved?”

Gattine said the state’s plan to have a private company operate the 21-bed center also raises red flags.

“Are we going to be privatizing an existing state function without any oversight or even any interaction from the Legislature?” he said. “A lot of the problems at Riverview were uncovered because we had inspectors using their licensing authority to go in there and see these problems.”

Riverview lost its federal certification after surveys found problems at the facility, 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. The state has since altered policies on patient restraint and seclusion, sought to hire new employees and made other changes.

Edwards, the DHHS spokeswoman, said many people in the state’s mental health system – including patients who live in community settings, with a caregiver or in group homes – already receive services from private companies that contract with DHHS.

The notion of a new privatized mental health facility also concerns the Maine State Employees Association, the union that represents about 8,000 state workers.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about this 21-bed facility,” said Mary Anne Turowski, the director of politics and legislation at MSEA-SEIU Local 1989. She said during the last legislative session there were a number of lobbyists working for a company that’s in the business of managing facilities for forensic mental health patients. “I don’t know if it was this facility they were shopping for or not.”

“How transparent is a private company going to be compared to a state-run facility?” Turowski said. She noted that DHHS has made other attempts to reconfigure the way the state takes care of those with violent mental illness in the wake of losing the federal certification and funding for Riverview.

“They have had multiple proposals out there – bills, proposals – and they haven’t gone anywhere because there haven’t been enough details,” Turowski said. “It’s a situation where the legislators ask for details, (DHHS) doesn’t give details and then everybody gets mad. The administration blames the lawmakers for being obstructionists and so on.”

But Turowski and lawmakers, including Gattine and Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, also said DHHS’ proposal for the new building is likely needed and may solve the problems at Riverview.

“On the surface it sounds like a fine idea,” Katz said. “But who is going to build it? Who is going to run it? How much is it going to cost us? What’s the plan for using the excess capacity at Riverview this could create? Those are all questions that many stakeholders in this are going to want to discuss”

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said lawmakers shouldn’t be surprised DHHS is moving forward with a plan to relieve some of the pressure on Riverview staff and patients. He agreed with Turowski that numerous proposals have been floated in and out of the Legislature before.

“It’s not like this is coming completely out of the blue,” Brakey said. “There have been a lot of conversations about this over the last few years.”

He said one previous proposal that would have created a 50-bed facility for the most dangerous mentally ill patients at Riverview was squelched by union concerns.

“It kind of got the kibosh from some folks on the left because I think that some of the public sector unions got wind of it and were upset. So we had a potential solution that ended up getting halted because of squabbles with unions,” Brakey said.