AUGUSTA — Maine health officials on Monday trumpeted a nonprofit group’s recent accreditation of Riverview Psychiatric Center, but the hospital must still pass a federal inspection to regain funding it lost last year.
The seal of approval from The Joint Commission, an Illinois nonprofit organization, is nothing new for Riverview, the state-run hospital on Augusta’s east side. The hospital and its predecessor, the Augusta Mental Health Institute, have been accredited by the group since 1958, said Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokesman John Martins.
Still, in a Monday news release, Mary Mayhew, the department’s commissioner, said the group’s accreditation of Riverview showed the state is “making a significant investment in quality on a day-to-day basis.”
The Joint Commission’s approval can sometimes function as the federal government’s, said Elizabeth Eaken Zhani, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit. Martins said the state wanted to pursue that option, but that the federal government told the state it would have to re-certify the hospital. He said the study was done on its normal three-year course and cost the state just over $18,000.
Helen Mulligan, a Boston-based spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the centers just learned of the hospital’s accreditation by the group on Monday. The federal department doesn’t re-certify hospitals until the reason for termination has been removed and the hospital provides assurance that it won’t happen again, Mulligan said.
Maine’s health department has been battling with its federal counterpart since late 2013, when the federal department pulled $20 million in funding from Riverview, more than half the hospital’s annual budget. The federal government first threatened to yank the funding in August, citing the use of stun guns and handcuffs by Kennebec County corrections officers to subdue aggressive patients as a principal reason.
Shortly after that, state legislators passed a law to establish a mental health ward at the Maine State Prison where certain forensic patients — people committed to the hospital by courts and who have been violent or criminal — would go for treatment. That ward at the Warren prison opened earlier this month.
But by October, the federal government found Riverview hadn’t solved other staffing and governance issues and pulled the funding, even after the state took initial steps to comply with federal policy by removing certain patients from a Medicaid-funded part of the hospital to make a separate unit to serve aggressive patients.
Mayhew blasted the finding as “inappropriate and unwarranted action” and vowed an appeal.
At the prison unit’s opening, Gov. Paul LePage even suggested that the Obama administration’s move was politically motivated, according to MPBN. The governor then noted that he’s the only Republican governor in New England, saying the Democratic president’s health and human services arm hasn’t been friendly to Maine “since the time I’ve been here.”
In January, the state lost an appeal to restore the funding before a federal administrative law judge. Attorney General Janet Mills vowed to appeal that ruling, and Tim Feeley, her spokesman, said on Monday the appeal is still active.
The Joint Commission, studying Riverview from July 2012 to June 2013, gave the hospital mostly average marks compared to hospitals nationwide, gaining a top rating for not placing any patients 65 or older under restraint. But it got negative marks for letting patients go while on certain medications and for the amount of time seclusion was used.
The study found that the hospital discharged 21 percent of 144 patients while on two or more antipsychotic medication, double the national average. Also, the hospital had patients secluded an average of 2.2 hours for each 1,000 hours of care, more than seven times the national average.
Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine, said in a statement that she welcomed the group’s approval of Riverview, but she still remained concerned about the hospital’s use of seclusion and restraint when dealing with patients.
“While we acknowledge this positive step for the state,” Mehnert said, “our remaining concern is that meeting standards for accreditation does not automatically equate with providing effective and humane services.”