Late last year, even as they fought over the right way to build a new facility for some patients now at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, legislators and the LePage administration agreed that the need for such a facility was urgent. Turns out, only one side was serious.
Nearly four months after Gov. Paul LePage said he was moving forward with his plan to build the “step-down” facility whether the Legislature liked it or not, there seems to be little progress, and no word from the governor’s office on what’s holding it up. Meanwhile, the delays in care the plan was meant to solve continue.
LePage first proposed building the 21-bed facility — which would house forensic patients that no longer need hospital-level care, freeing up beds for those who do — directly next to Riverview.
However, Democrats, concerned about the governor’s desire to have a private firm operate the facility, and turned off by the administration’s unwillingness to answer questions about it, exercised legislative leaders’ control over state construction within Augusta’s “Capitol Area,” voting to kill the proposal until administration officials appeared before the appropriate committees.
LePage lost it. His spokesman accused Democrats of “playing politics,” then said the administration would build the new facility in Bangor instead, outside of the Legislature’s purview, despite warning — without further detail — that it would add $1 million to the cost, and despite assurances from both Democratic and Republican legislators that hearings could be held almost immediately, soon enough for construction to start in January.
While Democrats were playing it up for the media and lobbyists, the administration said, the governor was “laser-focused on getting these patients the treatment and facility they need and deserve as soon as possible.”
Just short of four months later, there is no new building, and seemingly no plan for one. Administration officials haven’t briefed the Legislature on what they plan to do. Questions from mental health advocates, legislators and the media have gone unanswered, even unacknowledged. Where there was once so much urgency from the governor’s office, there is now “radio silence,” according to Republican Sen. Roger Katz, whose district includes Riverview.
And the problems at the hospital continue. While Riverview has made great strides in care, staff shortages, and employee morale since its federal certification was revoked in 2013, there remains a widely recognized need for more beds. Daniel Wathen, the former Maine chief justice who oversees Riverview under a consent decree covering people with severe mental illness under state care, said late last year that the average waiting list for a Riverview bed was nine people, and as high as 16. The executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said she heard of people waiting eight to 12 days in an emergency department hallway for a bed to open up at Riverview.
There is broad agreement that a step-down facility would help alleviate those problems. In fact, it’s the first area of broad agreement since the troubles at Riverview first surfaced.
And still, it appears, nothing is being done. It sure looks like someone was playing politics back in December — it just wasn’t the Democrats.