AUGUSTA — House Speaker Sara Gideon said a one-on-one meeting with Gov. Paul LePage Friday led to an agreement that could clear the way for the administration to build a new, 21-bed secure mental health facility next to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

Democratic legislative leaders have blocked construction of the facility on the state property, saying they want a chance to review the plan.

Gideon, D-Freeport, said the hourlong meeting with LePage produced a tentative agreement that the administration would answer lingering questions lawmakers have about the facility, which LePage’s Department of Health and Human Services wants to be privately operated. Gideon said her next step was to share the agreement with her Democratic colleagues and Republican Senate President Mike Thibodeau.

“(Lepage and I) have agreed on a next step and I need to make sure that both President Thibodeau and the other legislative leaders are comfortable with that,” she said.

Gideon would not say exactly what process she and the governor agreed to, but said she believes lawmakers would be able to move quickly, and that the standoff between legislative Democrats and LePage would come to an end by Christmas.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, agreed with Gideon’s characterization of the meeting, saying LePage had agreed to get answers for Democrats and that he, too, viewed the meeting as productive. However, Bennett also said the administration was not changing course in its efforts to find an alternative location for the facility outside of Augusta and at a location that doesn’t need the approval of the Legislature’s governing body, the Legislative Council.

“He is moving forward as planned,” Bennett said. “He has agreed to answer the questions that the Democrats may have along the way, but that’s not going to slow the process, because the patients are deserving of this facility in a timely manner; they’ve waited long enough.”

SEEKING SWIFT RESOLUTION

The proposal for a new treatment center is aimed in part at regaining federal certification for Riverview and the $20 million annual funding reimbursement that comes with it. It also is meant to free up bed space for those with violent mental illness by moving forensic patients in state custody who no longer need hospital-level care to the new, so-called “step-down” facility.

On Thursday, for the second time in two weeks, the Legislative Council split along party lines on the issue, blocking the administration’s efforts to move forward with the new unit. The facility would house people who have been found not criminally responsible for crimes by a court because of a mental illness, but who are too dangerous to return to the community. Under state law, the Legislative Council must approve any new construction on state property in the Capitol Area of Augusta, which includes the State House grounds and the campus at Riverview on the east side of the Kennebec River.

DHHS officials have said they have the funds to build and operate the new facility, which has a tentative price tag of about $3.5 million.

House Republicans, who have supported LePage by voting for the new facility, said Friday they want a swift resolution.

“The governor’s interest in a new facility is, first and foremost, getting it done quickly, not about who gets credit,” House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, said in a statement. “The issue is about location and House Republicans will continue to push for action sooner rather than later.”

Gideon, who was chosen as House speaker on Wednesday, has long maintained that Democrats recognize the state is in a crisis situation and they, too, agree a new facility in Augusta is needed.

“Number one, this facility does need to be built; there are a variety of reasons why it has to happen,” Gideon said. “Number two, Augusta, next to Riverview, is really the logical best place for it. And, number three, it would both protect the safety of the public and the population at this facility.”

She said lawmakers still have concerns about how the facility will be operated, who will be housed there and how it will be paid for, as well as ensuring patients’ rights are protected.

LEGISLATIVE OVERSIGHT

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said during a radio interview on WZON, AM 620, on Friday that he, too, believes the Legislature should have some oversight and be involved in the process of developing a new mental health facility.

“We just got to be smart about it,” he said. “The governor has proposed a new facility on the Riverview campus. … It is perfectly appropriate, but there are numerous questions” such as how the additional treatment capacity will be used and about the proposal that it be privately run.

“That (privatization) is a huge, huge decision,” he said. “It may well be a good one, but this is a decision that the Legislature ought to weigh in on.”

The federal agency that oversees Riverview’s funding revoked the hospital’s certification in 2013 after regulators found many 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 agency, the Center for Medicaid Services, also determined that Riverview was improperly commingling patients who needed intense hospital treatment with those who no longer required hospitalization.

Lawmakers have been wrangling over how to fix Riverview and expand the state’s capacity to treat the mentally ill for at least four years. They have also tried to tackle staffing and morale issues at the hospital, where health care workers have been attacked and injured by patients, by increasing salaries there.

Staffing issues have persisted and in 2015 lawmakers learned that more than 50 of the hospital’s 364 positions remained vacant, and 47 of those vacancies were for nurses.

 


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