AUGUSTA — A steady influx of mental patients at the Riverview Psychiatric Center who are accused of committing crimes is stripping the state hospital of federal money and adding to a ballooning multi-million-dollar budget hole.

That’s according to former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, who oversees a consent decree that holds the state mental hospital accountable to certain standards.

Wathen, who files quarterly progress reports on Riverview, told legislators Wednesday that the gaping budget hole could reach an estimated $2.3 million for the five months remaining in this fiscal year. That deficit is not addressed in the proposed supplemental budget.

Even as those budget woes loom, Wathen said there’s a critical need to increase funding to aid people with mental illness who are living in the community.

“More than 400 people are waiting for the most basic mental health service: caseworkers,” he said.

The consent decree calls for those requesting a caseworker to get one within at least three days, but Wathen says the wait is typically much more, sometimes weeks or months. The promise, he writes in his report, has “never been even remotely fulfilled.”

The committee took no action on Wathen’s concerns, but Rep. Richard R. Farnsworth, D-Portland, the committee’s House chairman, thanked him for coming “and filling us in on some of the holes in the mental health safety net.”

Sen. Colleen M. Lachowicz, D-Waterville, a social worker who has worked in mental health with consent-decree class members, said later that the committee is halfway through the process of working with the supplemental budget.

“We’re glad to have (Wathen’s) input and want to make sure we come up with recommendations that keep core services for people and also give the Appropriations Committee some recommendations they can work with,” she said.

Wathen summarized for the panel the conclusions in his latest progress report on how well the state is dealing with people hospitalized at Riverview or served by its staff.

The 1990 consent decree requires the state to provide adequate services for those with mental illness.

It covers about 4,500 people who had been treated at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, Riverview’s predecessor hospital, since January 1988.

The state has an obligation to serve others with mental illness by providing similar services, which brings the approximate number of people served to about 12,000.

Earlier this month, Riverview had 51 forensic patients — those who either are accused of committing crimes or have been found not criminally responsible for crimes. There were 57 forensic patients at one point last year.

Riverview was built with 92 beds with the anticipation that 44 would be for forensic patients and 48 for general psychiatric patients, called civil patients.

The state mental hospital is facing a funding pinch because only forensic patients committed to the care of the health and human services commissioner are eligible for federal funding reimbursement.

Some former Riverview patients who had been living in group homes on the state campus recently were moved into supervised housing in the community, in part to regain eligibility for Social Security and other benefits. Some city officials and others have criticized the moves, saying dangerous people are being thrust into city neighborhoods.

Riverview forensic patients who come from jails or prisons, those getting court-ordered evaluations and those judged incompetent to stand trial are not eligible for federal reimbursement.

That means the state will not receive some $2.3 million it anticipated from what is known as Federal Disproportional Share funding, because those accused of committing crimes are not eligible for the fund reimbursement.

Also earlier this month, Riverview had 24 patients on the civil side of the hospital — those who require mental treatment but have not committed crimes. Those patients are typically eligible for some funding that supports their care, such as medication and evaluations.

Wathen said Riverview also needs almost $1 million for an audit of the federal program, and $750,000 to replace an obsolete electronic medical records program as well as $543,000 to support services for forensic patients being moved into community placement.

“I realize it’s a tough year, but every year has been a tough year since I’ve been around,” Wathen told the committee. He has been court master since September 2003, when he was appointed to succeed Gerald Rodman.

Betty Adams — 621-5631
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