Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that the loss of a federal certification and about $20 million a year in federal funding for the state’s primary secure mental-health hospital was political retaliation by the Obama administration.
LePage said a federal audit in 2013 that led to Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta losing its federal certification with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was payback for Maine’s rejection of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Speaking during a radio interview Tuesday morning, LePage did not substantiate the accusation and did not provide any of the details that he said have been provided to the Trump administration in support of the claim. The governor’s aides did not respond to requests for further information.
Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in an interview later Tuesday that the timing of the federal action against Riverview supports the argument that it was politically motivated. However, a key Democratic lawmaker objected to the claim, saying the LePage administration is trying to revise history and avoid accountability.
Riverview lost its federal certification after separate federal audits found problems at the 92-bed 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. At least some accusations of mismanagement, abuse and neglect were corroborated by a state investigatory report, by a former judge who oversees mental health care services, and in accounts provided by employees and former employees of Riverview to Maine lawmakers and to the media.
The state has since altered policies on patient restraint and seclusion, sought to hire new employees, increased wages for workers and made other changes.
The federal audit by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also determined that Riverview was improperly commingling patients who needed intense hospital treatment with those who no longer required hospitalization.
The LePage administration is moving to construct a step-down facility to address some of those deficiencies at the hospital by relocating patients who no longer need hospital-level care.
The governor said he and Mayhew met with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last week in Washington. Mayhew explained to Price how Riverview lost its certification and spelled out details that indicated it was political retaliation, LePage said.
“Tom Price was very, very receptive to our case about Riverview, and they’re looking into whether or not it was a political retaliation because we did not expand, and that’s what we claim,” LePage said during his weekly interview on Bangor-based WVOM radio. “This was a move by the Obama administration to poke us in the eye and we believe that it was nothing but a political move and there’s plenty of evidence and they’re going to research that.”
LePage then predicted the Trump administration would reverse course on Riverview and restore the hospital’s federal certification and funding.
“Mary Mayhew made a case on how it all evolved and what happened and their jaws hit the table,” LePage said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on LePage’s claim.
In August 2015, a federal judge rejected a LePage administration appeal of the certification loss because the state DHHS had missed a filing deadline for appealing the decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In an interview with the Press Herald later Tuesday, Mayhew said she described for Price a chronology of interactions between Maine and the federal inspectors that uncovered the deficiencies at the hospital. Mayhew said after the state had filed a corrective action plan and taken steps to resolve all the initial problems, the federal inspectors returned to document an additional problem with the hospital’s record-keeping on patient treatment.
“And based on that one condition, we were not able to get the hospital recertified,” Mayhew said. “But we have resolved all of the issues that were raised in 2013.”
She said the political retaliation against Maine came from the federal government as LePage’s administration tried to reform welfare programs in Maine.
“What we have experienced is repeated resistance to the reforms that we have been advancing in this administration, hostility toward the state because we’ve opposed and rejected expansion,” Mayhew said. “It’s one office down in Boston that we certainly have seen considerable resistance and opposition to our efforts in Maine to restore integrity to these programs, to effectively manage these programs and to certainly make sure our finances are in order in the best interests of the state.”
Mayhew also said that despite the decertification of Riverview, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency responsible for providing payment to the state for the hospital, has not withheld any payments. Still, Mayhew said ensuring that funding remains stable was important, and she and LePage wanted to eliminate any possibility that those federal funds would be jeopardized going forward. Mayhew said Price’s response was that he would look into the issue.
“This should not be considered, here, or in Washington, to be a political issue,” Mayhew said. “Maine’s largest state psychiatric hospital is critical to the functioning of the overall mental health system. That’s what’s at stake here. And that’s why it is critically important that we eliminate any doubt about the stability and finances for Riverview.”
State Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, who formerly served as the House chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and now serves as the House chair of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said Mayhew and LePage’s narrative on Riverview left out some key elements.
“What frustrates me is that there is still such a lack of acknowledgment by this administration of their responsibility for what happened at Riverview,” Gattine said.
Gattine said when LePage took office and Mayhew became DHHS commissioner in 2011, Riverview was fully certified and by hospital standards was a relatively new facility, having opened in 2003. “But within two years, we had lost our certification and it was very clear what the problems were,” Gattine said. “(Mayhew) brought in corrections officers and there were multiple incidents of inappropriate use of restraints, which included Tasers and pepper spray. That’s the reason why the hospital lost its certification.”
Gattine said subsequent federal reviews of Riverview found it had patients who were not being treated for their conditions. “They were basically just being warehoused, and that’s not a paperwork problem, that’s a substantive problem,” he said.
He said LePage and Mayhew were deploying a “revisionist history” and he doesn’t understand why. “The facts are so clear as to why certification was lost, I don’t understand why they would want to keep bringing this up, but it’s frustrating to me that they refuse to take responsibility and accountability,” he said.
Gattine said the Washington visit by Mayhew and LePage to lobby Price or other Trump administration officials on Riverview seems inappropriate.
“I think it is very, very unfair to the people of the state of Maine for our governor and for our human services commissioner to be going down to Washington, D.C., as representatives of our state, and meeting with the highest-ranking officials in the new administration and being dishonest with them about the situation here in Maine,” he said. “That should be troubling to every taxpayer.”
Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at: