AUGUSTA — The man now at the helm of the Riverview Psychiatric Center has been the go-to manager for state institutions in a tough spot.

Rodney Bouffard, who was superintendent of the Augusta Mental Health Institute in the 1990s before moving to the Maine Department of Corrections, has been appointed as superintendent of Riverview, a move welcomed by unions representing most of the workers at the state hospital and the director of an agency that advocates for people with disabilities.

Bouffard, 64, of Gray, replaces Jay Harper, who resigned as superintendent a month ago about the same time that Dr. Brendan Kirby left as clinical director.

Dr. William H. Nelson Jr., a psychiatrist who was clinical director of Riverview until several years ago, has resumed that post on an acting basis.

The leadership changes are the latest in a series of upheavals at the 92-bed state hospital that opened in 2004 to replace AMHI and which treats patients committed through civil and criminal court processes.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency that oversees Riverview funding, revoked its certification 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. That action has jeopardized $20 million in annual funding reimbursement.

Last October, Riverview’s nursing director and assistant director of nursing departed, and workers there told a legislative committee earlier this year that the hospital was in a staffing crisis because of the number of unfilled direct care nursing and mental health worker positions and the mandates being used to fill shifts.

Bouffard’s Riverview assignment mirrors some of his previous jobs, in which he dealt with staffing crises and money problems as well as violence.

Bouffard has been associate commissioner in the Department of Corrections, warden at the Maine State Prison, and superintendent of Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.

In 1996, he was named superintendent and oversaw the closing of the former Pineland Center in Pownal, a facility for those with developmental disabilities. He then went to AMHI as superintendent in 1998 at a time when AMHI was facing woes similar to Riverview, including problems with federal funding, certification and staff morale.

“At that time the Department of Justice was pretty much about ready to start a fairly significant investigation,” he said. “The Health Care Finance Commission gave us three months to come into substantial compliance, the Joint Commission put us on a watch and the Department of Human Services, I think, put us on a two-year conditional license. It was a good challenge. It took probably about – I’m guessing now – two years to get everything squared away.”

Today, with his 40 years’ experience as an administrator, he’s decided to focus first on ending mandates that force mostly front-line mental health workers and nurses to put in extra hours and, frequently, extra full shifts at Riverview.

“I’m relatively convinced that within four to six weeks with the mental health workers, I can pretty much mitigate the mandating,” he said in an interview Thursday. He also anticipates having the remaining vacancies in those jobs filled by the end of June and then look at the nursing staff with the same goals in mind.

“That hospital is only going to be as good as the people who essentially are interacting with the patients, so if (the workers) can plan on whatever their day is going to be, they’re going to be a lot happier,” Bouffard said. “My sense is if I can resolve that, get a little more infrastructure on the units, I think we can really be moving the place in the right direction.”

EXPERIENCED HAND

The hospital has hired a full-time recruiter for staff, and the Legislature on Friday overrode Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill offering hourly pay raises for front-line workers. The legislation provides pay raises of $2 to $4 per hour to direct care workers at the two state psychiatric hospitals, Riverview in Augusta and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

“We cannot fix Riverview’s staffing shortage if these jobs pay inadequate wages,” said Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, a member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, shortly after the House voted 116-25 to override. The Senate vote was 34-1 to override.

Bouffard also hopes to move to having permanent psychiatrists rather than relying on those working under temporary contracts.

Bouffard’s hiring drew praise from a spokesman with the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, which represents many of the nursing staff at Riverview.

“We think it’s encouraging to see the administration put an experienced hand on deck,” said Tom Farkas, spokesman for MSEA. “Rod Bouffard knows the institution. He’s well known to the workforce. If anyone can right the ship, it’s Rod Bouffard.”

Laura Fisher, a Riverview mental health worker who is president of AFSCME 1814, said meetings have already begun with the new hospital officials.

“We are excited about the changes,” she said. “We’ve already started meeting with leadership on correcting staffing problems and providing the best care possible at the hospital. Stabilizing our workforce and getting our certification back are the biggest priorities.”

On behalf of the 140 people represented by her union – who include mental health workers, rehabilitation staff and some vocational and dietary staff – she recently advocated for the override of LePage’s veto of the pay raise legislation.

“I believe the pay raises will establish a workforce that is more willing to make this a career instead of moving in and out,” Fisher said.

PULLING TOGETHER

Fisher has been a mental health worker at the state hospital in Augusta for 28 years, including time at AMHI that overlapped with Bouffard’s.

“I very much enjoyed working with him, and I am excited about our work now,” she said. “I think he has a good grasp of how to pull things together and to get them working the most efficient that we can.”

Kim Moody, who has spent 30 years with Disability Rights Maine, the last 20 as executive director, had praise for Bouffard and recalled his handling of the closure of Pineland.

“He was the superintendent ensuring each person that left Pineland was in a safe place in the community,” she said. “I am very hopeful about him stepping into Riverview, where the problems seem unsolvable. If anybody in the state of Maine can step into a state institution and turn things around, that’s Rod. He’s a good leader, but also a good manager. I think he’s proven that he cares deeply about Maine’s most vulnerable populations.”

Ricker Hamilton, deputy commissioner of programs at DHHS, said Thursday that while the certification situation remains the same, the state still retains the $20 million in funding that’s considered to be in jeopardy.

“No funds have been taken from the state of Maine,” Hamilton said. “Those funds are at risk, as we keep saying over and over again. They are at risk because of the forensic situation.”

“The Legislature turned down our proposals to create secure forensic beds, which is the central issue” for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, he said.

The hospital remains accredited by The Joint Commission and licensed by the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services.