AUGUSTA — With 72 of 92 beds occupied at Riverview Psychiatric Center, it hardly seems to be at a loss for space. However, there’s a waiting list to enter and a considerable wait to leave.

So the court master charged with overseeing a consent agreement that affects Riverview is suggesting the state reopen two group homes on state grounds to house 10 people who have been given, or anticipate receiving, court permission to leave the hospital and transition to a group home setting.

Daniel Wathen, who is also a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, told a legislative committee Tuesday that some of the 53 forensic patients — those there under court order — are so acutely ill that they require higher ratios of staff to patients, which is why hospital officials say not all the beds can be occupied.

The Arsenal Heights group homes, on the same property as the state hospital, were closed about a year ago, and the occupants moved to group living facilities on Glenridge Drive and Green Street in Augusta. That move made those former patients eligible for federal Social Security benefits. They were denied them while living on state property.

Wathen had no cost estimate for the move, but he said that would allow some room for the 12 people now under court order to be held at Riverview. Eight have been ordered to receive long-term forensic evaluations at the hospital, three have been deemed incompetent to stand trial and one has been found not criminally responsible. In the meantime, they are being held in jails; six other people are awaiting transfers to Riverview from jail.

Wathen said he is contemplating making a formal recommendation to reopen those homes. “There are six people currently cleared and have permission to leave; four of those have been waiting six months,” Wathen said. “Three or more could be ready to leave in the next couple of months.”

If he does recommend the reopening, the state has to comply or go to court to tell a judge why it is not. Wathen said officials had looked at opening a group home in the Bowdoinham area, but that has proved unfeasible.

Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, already has proposed using the Arsenal Heights group homes to house homeless and transitioning veterans. A long-standing plan had called for the homes to be demolished once Riverview was no longer using them. However, he said the demolition is estimated to cost $100,000. His proposal, he said, would “save the same money, help a nonprofit and help homeless veterans.” He said Tuesday the properties are in the possession of the Bureau of General Services, which is maintaining them.

“It’s more complicated than just putting people back in,” Wilson said. “There were problems when we moved those people out of those group homes, and those problems remain.”

He said he had not heard of any plans by Riverview or other state officials to reuse the buildings.

“There’s a great need, so the needs ought to be compared,” said Wathen, who indicated he was aware of Wilson’s proposal.

The legislative committee on health and human services had a daylong hearing Tuesday covering a variety of topics, with concerns about Riverview first on the list.

As the hearing began, committee members received a 50-plus-page document from the department with answers to a number of questions posed at a Nov. 23 meeting. Those concerned the state’s progress appealing Riverview’s loss of its Medicare provider agreement, which cost it eligibility for some federal funds.

The department’s written response from Commissioner Mary Mayhew said documents in the appeal are due in January, and an administrative law judge within the federal Department of Health and Human Services will rule some time after that.

Wathen told the committee that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have filed a motion seeking to dismiss the state’s appeal and a motion for summary judgment.

Those motions maintain that the appeal is too late and that Riverview and/or the state does not have a right to a hearing.

The state, Wathen said, will respond to those motions in support of its appeal.

In April, the hospital initially was notified that its certification was at risk and corrected some of the deficiencies, but was told it was not enough. An audit for compliance with federal guidelines was prompted by a March attack by a patient on a mental health worker. That patient, Mark P. Murphy, 48, was tried on elevated aggravated assault charges in Kennebec County Superior Court, but a judge has yet to render a verdict.

In the meantime, the state is using state general fund monies and other federal dollars to support services normally funded by Medicare.

Several committee members questioned why the department responded only in writing rather than sending a representative to Tuesday’s hearing.

John Martins, spokesman for the department, said DHHS officials would not be available to attend a hearing scheduled Thursday before the Appropriations Committee and will respond again to previously asked questions in writing.

“The department has spent countless hours speaking with the Legislature and has appeared before (the health and human services) committee in August, September, October and November,” Mayhew said in an emailed statement sent through Martins. “This week alone, our staff has produced more than 200 pages in response to nearly 100 questions over the span of two hearings this week. It is critical that we continue our important work and focus our energy on the day-to-day operation of the department and the delivery of critical services to Maine people.”

One of the documents supplied by the department to the committee outlines measures the department was taking toward getting recertification:

• creating job positions for and hire four acuity specialists;

• providing more de-escalation training to staff on the Lower Saco unit, which houses solely forensic patients;

• establishing a mental health unit at the Maine State Prison;

• placing a resource officer from Capitol Police in the lobby of Riverview Psychiatric Center;

• re-engaging and retraining staff on the recovery and rehabilitation model at Riverview;

• and continuing to recruit nurses and psychologists as well as seek a review of the salary structure for both jobs. In the meantime, the hospital has contracted with an agency for per-diem registered nurses.

Betty Adams — 621-5631[email protected]Twitter: @betadams