AUGUSTA — Riverview Psychiatric Center has made the headlines a lot lately. Sometimes what gets lost in the details of the story is why any of this matters and who is affected.

In short, we all are. Riverview’s patients are our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They are our neighbors and our co-workers. Their safety and treatment are our responsibility. And as lawmakers, we also serve as watchdogs to ensure the safety of those among us who may not always be able to advocate for or protect themselves. It’s a job we take seriously.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ plan to build a new facility without any public input or legislative oversight is just the latest in a long string of controversies spanning nearly four years. In 2013, responding to a complaint that a patient had been abused, federal inspectors descended on Riverview, a hospital owned by the state of Maine and operated by the DHHS. What they found was stunning and has been well-documented.

The hospital had brought in corrections officers to “manage” patients. On dozens of occasions, guards had used pepper spray, Tasers and other harsh tactics to control vulnerable patients.

One such patient, a female who was not threatening harm to herself or anyone else, was coated with pepper spray as she cowered, naked and defenseless, in the corner of her room. She was then tied down and held in restraints for three hours as she screamed for help.

The abuse of patients at Riverview and other serious problems caused the federal government to sanction Maine by pulling Riverview’s certification to bill Medicare and Medicaid. For almost four years now the Maine Legislature has been aggressively pushing the DHHS to fix problems at Riverview so that patients get the best care possible, workers are safe and taxpayers are not on the hook to the feds for millions of dollars.

The Legislature provided millions in new funding for Riverview, gave the department new authority to compel treatment and created a new mental health unit for people needing behavioral health care in our state prisons. In spite of assurances by the department that these steps would fix Riverview’s problems, the hospital is still not certified and over $20 million of Maine tax dollars are at risk annually.

Riverview has improved, but progress has been slow. While the Legislature provided additional funding for new positions and wage increases, staffing shortages continue to plague the hospital, putting staff at risk of injury and creating an environment that is not therapeutic for the patients.

Legislators have consistently pushed the DHHS to come forward with a public plan that meets the needs of forensic patients at Riverview who no longer need hospital-level care. Despite the overwhelming need, the department continues to refuse to come to the table and engage with legislators, advocates or health care professionals.

It seems clear that Maine desperately needs a new facility for these patients and that the facility should be built near Riverview. Before we can decide for sure, though, there are important questions that need to be publicly discussed, including who will be responsible for patient care, how much the facility will cost to build and operate, and whether the construction of this new facility will enable recertification by the federal government.

Now the DHHS says that it is moving ahead with its plan (which neither the public nor the Legislature has been able to question) to build the facility. Instead, the department has developed a secret plan to hire an outside firm, possibly a private prison company, to come in and run this new facility.

Although the department’s mishandling of Riverview was what created this mess, the department wants legislative leaders to simply rubber stamp approval of the plan. Gov. Paul LePage has threatened that if he doesn’t get what he wants, no questions asked, he’ll build it anyway, somewhere else, for millions more, even though the Riverview campus is by far the best location.

Governing by ultimatum needs to stop. This is an important proposal that will fundamentally change how Maine cares for some of its most challenging mental health patients. Millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake.

Legislators are already moving ahead quickly, but this proposal needs a public vetting that includes input from the people it will most affect. Refusing to work openly with stakeholders makes it seem like the department has something to hide. That is not an approach that will solve the crisis at Riverview.

— Special to the Press Herald

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