Lawmakers said Monday that employee accounts of workers abusing patients at Riverview Psychiatric Center, highlighted in the Maine Sunday Telegram this week, warrant a full-scale state investigation of the hospital.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, told the Press Herald that they intend to vote to start an in-depth investigation of Riverview by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, a watchdog agency within state government.

“The mismanagement and culture inside Riverview is shameful,” Craven said.

Craven and Katz serve on the Government Oversight Committee, which meets Wednesday and was set to decide this week whether to launch a full review of Riverview, a 92-bed mental hospital that houses patients sent there through the criminal court system as well as civil patients who are involuntarily committed.

Katz said the Telegram story and concerns brought to him by employees raised numerous questions that demand answers, including why a pepper spray incident in December 2013 was not reported to the authorities and to the Legislature. He also said accounts of a dysfunctional work culture and a lack of proper treatment for patients must be addressed. Employees reported that they have witnessed workers routinely provoking and punishing patients, including sometimes punching or tackling patients, and withholding food.

Assurances by interim Superintendent Jay Harper that Riverview is improving are not enough, Katz said.

“We had similar things said by the former superintendent,” he said, referring to Mary Louise McEwen, who was fired in March after Riverview lost its federal certification in September 2013, along with the $20 million in funding that goes with being a hospital in good standing with Medicare. Federal inspectors found numerous deficiencies at Riverview, including officers using stun guns and handcuffs on patients and substandard treatment plans. “If things are getting better, there is still a long way to go.”

Katz said he’s especially disturbed by a Dec. 2 incident, when a corrections officer coated a naked, defenseless patient with pepper spray. The patient was held in restraints for nearly three hours afterward, despite being compliant during the episode, according to a Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services report.

The report concluded that the staff abused the patient and failed to report the incident – as required by law – for nearly three months. Katz said he only learned of the pepper spray incident last week, despite Riverview being in his district.

Harper said Riverview will meet the demands of the Legislature, although he hopes the probe doesn’t take too much time away from implementing reforms.

“We’re a public institution,” he said. “We should be transparent.”

Harper said a number of reforms are underway, including efforts to reduce the use of restraints and seclusion, revamp patient treatment plans, increase training and employ techniques to calm agitated patients. Harper also has worked to de-emphasize the role of Capitol Police and security guards, involving them as little as possible with patient problems.

But Craven said she’s not yet convinced that Harper, a former patient advocate for the Disability Rights Center, is the transformative leader that Riverview needs.

“I wonder whether he has bought into the culture that was already there at Riverview,” Craven said.

Beth Ashcroft, director of the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, said that the oversight committee voted in August to have her staff do preliminary work on whether a full-scale review would be warranted.

Ashcroft said she wants to make sure that her office would not merely duplicate the efforts of Dan Wathen, the court master who is charged with making sure that Riverview is operating smoothly and complying with a consent decree that originated with the hospital’s predecessor, the Augusta Mental Health Institute. Wathen, a former Maine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, is conducting his own review of Riverview in October, in part because he was disturbed by the pepper spray incident.

Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage came under fire from his opponents, Democrat U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent candidate Eliot Cutler. LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, declined to comment for this story.

Michaud wrote in an email response to questions that “the LePage administration has been aware of the problems at Riverview, but has allowed things to get worse. Not only are they costing us millions of dollars, but they are putting employees and patients at risk.”

He called for “a thorough and transparent investigation into the serious issues” at the hospital.

Cutler wrote in an email that mental health affects may families.

“We have an obligation to some of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens to provide the kind of care they deserve in order for them to have successes in their lives. We are not doing that,” Cutler wrote.

Riverview has requested a new inspection by federal regulators. Harper said he hopes the hospital will regain certification this fall.

 

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