The executive director of Merrymeeting Behavioral Health Associates in Brunswick blamed a “media frenzy” on the agency’s abrupt decision to close last Friday, a week before it was scheduled to shut its doors.

Media reports caused an unnamed bank to freeze the agency’s accounts on Friday, according to an email by Executive Director James Talbott, forcing Merrymeeting’s early closure and costing 170 people their jobs.

Talbott said in an email to employees Saturday that the “extraordinary” media coverage last week, including stories in newspapers and on television about Merrymeeting’s planned closure on April 8 caused the agency’s bank to “become alarmed.” Merrymeeting last week said changes by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to mental health services meant it could no longer stay open.

Talbott wrote that he contacted the agency’s attorney, but that “even his interventions were not sufficient to keep the bank from freezing all our assets and essentially draining all monies from the corporate bank account which we used to fund payroll. As you may know that occurred on Friday, April 1. At that point at the advice of my attorney we closed the agency.”

Mary Beth Freeman, a former Merrymeeting employee, said the idea that the bank would freeze accounts based on media coverage is not believable.

“It’s a cover story,” Freeman said. “The way he’s acting disgusts me.”

Talbott did not respond to requests for comment from the Press Herald on Monday.

“I can tell you that had the bank not seized our money that with the next week’s billing we would have made payroll,” Talbott wrote in the email to employees.

Talbott wrote that the bank is considering refunding the account so former employees could still be paid.

Christopher Pinkham, president of the Maine Bankers Association, said while he had no direct knowledge of Merrymeeting’s banking, interactions between clients and banks are heavily regulated by federal and state laws.

“Any action by a financial institution is most likely driven by the precise language of the contract between the client and the bank,” Pinkham said.

Pinkham said an “extraordinary” set of circumstances would have to unfold for a bank to immediately freeze an account.

Merrymeeting previously blamed its impending closure on changes being implemented by DHHS to Section 17, a part of the MaineCare program which provides community support services to the mentally ill.

Community support includes services that help mentally ill patients with activities of daily living, such as doing laundry, shopping for groceries, socializing and reminders to take medications.

Under the changes – which are scheduled to take effect Friday – only patients with schizophrenia or schizo-affective disorders would automatically qualify for services under Section 17. DHHS will allow certain exceptions, including recent hospitalization or if a patient’s doctor provides evidence that the patient needs the services.

Samantha Edwards, DHHS spokeswoman, said the agency closed without knowing the impact of the Section 17 changes.

“It is impossible to fault a rule change that is not yet operational,” Edwards said in a statement.

Those who no longer qualify for Section 17 services can still get more limited help under another DHHS program, but the services may be limited to a few times per month instead of the unlimited services permitted under Section 17.

Hundreds of mental health advocates, patients and counselors showed up at a legislative public hearing at the State House in Augusta on Friday to protest the changes.

Freeman said she now believes something else is going on that spurred Merrymeeting to close.

“I am very skeptical (of Talbott),” said Freeman, who provided community support for patients. “Why would they close before the changes happened?”

Edwards wrote that about 60 out of 500 of Merrymeeting’s clients would have no longer qualified for Section 17 services. She said the department’s “rapid response team” is working with Merrymeeting’s former clients to find new health care providers so patients experience as little disruption in service as possible.

Talbott, in closing his email to employees, wrote that “this is certainly not the way I ever envisioned an end to Merrymeeting Behavioral Health.

“I am confident in my knowledge that we did nothing wrong.”

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