AUGUSTA — In a bid to win back federal funding, the state is proposing to build a facility next to Riverview Psychiatric Center to treat mentally ill patients who have committed crimes and no longer require hospital-level care.

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which operates Riverview, said the plan is to have the 21-bed secure rehabilitation center completed in 2017.

“One of the primary reasons behind the facility is to house those individuals no longer in need of a hospital level of care which has been an issue when working to regain certification from (the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services),” Edwards said Wednesday via email.

The federal agency that oversees Riverview funding revoked the hospital’s certification more than two years ago after regulators found numerous problems during an audit, including the use of stun guns, pepper spray and handcuffs on patients; improper record-keeping; medication errors; and failure to report progress made by patients.

However, the 92-bed hospital, which treats civil patients as well as forensic patients placed there through the criminal justice system, remains accredited by The Joint Commission. The commission is an independent, nonprofit organization that “accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States,” indicating the facilities meet certain performance standards, according to its website.

It’s not the first time a separate facility has been proposed to handle some forensic patients.

In August 2015, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that creating a new, separate treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes might be the only way for the state hospital to regain that certification, which is accompanied by a federal funding reimbursement of $20 million a year.

Prior to that, in May 2015, Gov. Paul LePage submitted a bill seeking funding for a 50-bed Behavioral Assessment Safety Evaluation, or BASE, but that bill died.

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said Thursday he had not been aware of the department’s proposal.

“I’m not opposed to the department exploring this option,” Gattine said on Thursday. “In all likelihood this is the kind of thing we need to do. I just wish they were clearer about what their plans were.”

But he also ticked off a number of questions about the plans, including asking which patients would be served, how they would be served, who will pay for it and who will staff it. The state estimates it will cost $3 million and $5 million to build.

“All those questions need to be answered,” he said.

He compared the proposal to an emergency bill that failed late in the most recent legislative session that required the state to gather information and create a plan to expand the capacity to treat forensic and civil mental health patients.

“There is definitely a problem at the hospital,” Gattine said, referring to patients ready for release who don’t need hospital-level care anymore but who cannot be placed in the community.

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who is on the same committee, said Thursday she was “fully in support of it” if the department has founding funding for the proposal.

“This is something the department tried to do via the Legislature,” she said. “It’s just been rejected time and time again. Unfortunately, it’s been a party-line battle when it shouldn’t be.”

She said a step-down facility with a more therapeutic model would benefit some patients who are essentially waiting for adjudication or other action, and the plan could separate them from other forensic patients who could be “incredibly violent.”

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said Thursday the plan “seems like a good idea,” but he had questions about the facility that mirrored Gattine’s.

“The devil is in the details,” Katz said. “Who’s going to own it, who’s going to operate it and what kind of patients will be placed there? The department has not given the Legislature much information to date on any of these questions. Particularly because this is in Augusta, I’m reaching out to the department to at least get a briefing for the Augusta legislative delegation. Many of us would like to see what the administration’s overall plan is for dealing with the severely mentally ill and how this proposal would fit into that.”

Along with seeking recertification, the department has seen a host of other problems at Riverview, including difficulty in attracting and retaining doctors, nurses and other staff members. Katz helped organize a forum in January at which current and past Riverview workers aired grievances over being mandated to work overtime and taking extra shifts to cover numerous vacancies. The state has since indicated that the hospital’s vacancies were being filled. However, Gov. Paul LePage imposed a hiring freeze on the Department of Health and Human Services in June.

In connection with the proposed rehabilitation facility, a notice indicating the state’s intent to apply for a permit under the Site Location of Development Act was filed Thursday with the city of Augusta.

It indicates the plan is for “infrastructure improvements on the East Campus, including development of parking lots and sidewalks, and the construction of a new Secure Forensic Rehab Facility adjacent to the Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center.” The East Campus is between Hospital and Arsenal streets.

At the city offices, Matt Nazar, director of development services, said Thursday the plans themselves would be due Friday to be placed on the agenda for the next meeting of the Planning Board, on Sept. 13.

He said he understood that was the plan when he talked with representatives of the Department of Health and Human Services.

He said those plans, once submitted, would be scanned in and posted on the city’s website within a few working days.

Five construction firms submitted information Thursday to express interest in bidding on the project.

David Heidrich, at the Bureau of General Services, which would oversee the construction, said the companies submitting qualifying packets are AlliedCook Construction in Scarborough, Cianbro in Pittsfield, Consigli Construction in Portland, Ganneston Construction Corp. in Augusta, and Sheridan Construction Corp. in Fairfield.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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Twitter: @betadams