If you think talk is cheap, you weren’t paying attention when then-Gov. Paul LePage was blustering about Riverview Psychiatric Center.

His insistence that Maine could keep spending federal Medicaid money on a decertified facility resulted in a big bill for the Maine taxpayer that was paid off by his successor this summer.

In addition to having to repay more than $80 million that had been improperly drawn down, Mainers also had to pay $2 million in interest. That money was shipped off to Washington instead of staying here in Maine, where it could have been used to plug holes in an underresourced mental health system.

The problems at Riverview stretched throughout the eight years of the LePage administration. In 2013, the 92-bed mental health facility was decertified by the federal government after an inspection discovered deficiencies, such as the use of stun guns and pepper spray, the improper use of restraints and seclusion of patients, poor record-keeping and medication errors.

Loss of certification meant a loss of federal money through the Medicaid program. Rather than working with the Legislature to bring the hospital up to standards, LePage continued to spar with lawmakers, while continuing to spend federal money to operate Riverview, despite warnings from the federal Department of Health and Human Services that Maine would have to pay it back.

When Republican Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, LePage triumphantly flew down to Washington with high hopes for intervention. LePage claimed that the decertification had been an act of political revenge by President Obama, payback for Maine’s rejection of federal funds for expanding Medicaid eligibility through the Affordable Care Act.

LePage said he and his health and human services commissioner, Mary Mayhew, got what they thought was a sympathetic hearing, but the state’s debt failed to magically disappear.

Fortunately, there has been good news regarding Maine’s mental health system this year. Riverview was recertified in February. Last month the Mental Health Working Group convened, bringing together lawmakers, hospital officials, state officials, nonprofit groups that offer mental health services, law enforcement and others.

The group is charged with making recommendations to improve Maine’s approach to preventing and treating mental illness, closing the gaps in the system where people in need get lost.

That kind of cooperative talk is very valuable and is exactly what was missing during the last administration. We’ve seen how much the noncooperative talk can cost.

 

This editorial was updated on Oct. 3, 2019 to correct the total amount of money the state returned to the federal government.

 


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