AUGUSTA — Lawmakers on Wednesday effectively killed a proposal to move mental health patients who have committed violent criminal acts back to the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus and out of residential neighborhoods.

The decision came after the Department of Health and Human Services said it would cost the state at least $2 million a year to care for the 16 patients.

Bonnie Smith, deputy commissioner for programs at DHHS, told members of the State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday that even if the state sells two houses on the property to a private nonprofit — which would take them out of state hands — the federal government still will deny Social Security and other benefits to the patients. That’s because even though AMHI is closed, the “doctors’ houses” are still considered by the federal government to be on the grounds of a mental health facility.

“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Smith said. “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services does not recognize it, regardless of the owner, if it’s on the campus of an institution for mental disease.”

For more than 100 years, AMHI served thousands of mentally ill people from across the state. It closed in 2004, at which time the state opened a much smaller facility nearby — the Riverview Psychiatric Center — to treat the severely mentally ill.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, sponsored a bill to sell the two houses on the former AMHI campus to the nonprofit Motivational Services to get the patients out of two Augusta neighborhoods.

City officials and residents were stunned last summer to learn that the forensic patients had been moved from the AMHI campus to two residential neighborhoods, on Glenridge Drive and Green Street, without any notification to anyone. Some feared for public safety with the patients close to residential homes.

The state moved the patients — some of whom were found not criminally responsible for killings they had committed — off the campus when their federal benefits were cut off because they were living in a state-owned facility. Wilson had hoped that selling the homes to Motivational Services would solve the funding issue, along with concerns expressed by neighbors.

“When my community says we don’t want them, we don’t want them,” Wilson said. “We are the only place in the state of Maine with these forensic patients.”

However, Smith said DHHS estimates that it would cost the state $2 million to $2.5 million a year to pick up the cost for the 16 patients, because they will not receive any federal funding.

Also, she worries that it would trigger an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, because other states have been required to pay back federal funds in similar situations.

“We understand when dealing with the forensic population the fear is out there,” she said, but she noted that the recidivism rate for this population is “incredibly low, close to zero.”

“The first sign of stress, and the team responds quickly,” she said. “They call in resources or they go back to Riverview.”

Last week, committee members expressed concern that Wilson’s bill proposed selling the buildings without putting them out to competitive bid. On Wednesday, nine members voted in opposition to the bill, with many of them saying the information from DHHS convinced them that a sale would not solve the problem.

The buildings are scheduled for demolition and will be torn down when the state has the money to pay for it, said Bureau of General Services Director Donald McCormack.

Wilson’s parting words to the committee were, “I’m not done yet.” He said in an interview after the meeting that he has two other ideas for dealing with the issue. One is a bill, L.D. 805, which would require the state to give municipalities 120 days’ notice before opening a mental health facility. It has yet to be referred to a committee.

In addition, Wilson said he’s going to ask legislative leaders for special permission to introduce a bill to require the state to update the master plan for the old AMHI campus. He said the state put about $750,000 of work into the “doctors’ houses” 10 years ago, and now they are on the verge of being torn down.

He wants them to be reopened for use as mental health facilities.

“The circumstances around these homes have changed significantly,” he said. “We invested three-quarters of a million dollars 10 years ago, and now they are slated for demolition. Who would do that?”

Susan Cover — 621-5643
scover@mainetoday.com