AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to investigate Riverview Psychiatric Center, responding to reports by current and former employees of widespread abuse at the hospital.

“This was a good day for the future of Riverview,” said Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta.

As a result of the vote, the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability will examine how abuse cases at the hospital are reported and whether employees are discouraged by Riverview’s workplace culture to turn in co-workers seen abusing patients. Investigators also will look at whether data used to track patient care at the 92-bed state-run hospital in Augusta, including how often restraints and seclusion techniques are used, is reliably collected.

Riverview has had numerous problems over the past few years. The hospital lost its federal certification and the $20 million that goes with it in September 2013, after reports of corrections officers using stun guns and handcuffs on patients. Efforts to regain good standing with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services so far have failed.

This week, the Maine Sunday Telegram reported on a December pepper-spray incident that employees failed to report immediately – as required by law – instead waiting months before alerting authorities. State investigators determined in a March report that a patient who was pepper-sprayed by a corrections officer while nude and in a defensive position was abused by staff. The woman also was held in restraints for several hours despite being compliant, according to the report by the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, violating Riverview’s policies on use of restraints.

Current and former employees told the newspaper that some workers routinely provoke and punish patients, including tackling and punching them or withholding food.

Mary Louise McEwen, the former Riverview superintendent, was fired in March and replaced by interim superintendent Jay Harper.

Harper did not attend the oversight committee meeting, but has said he’s making a number of reforms, including efforts to reduce the use of restraints and seclusion, improve patient treatment plans and train employees on how to calm agitated patients. He said in a phone interview Wednesday that he believes the OPEGA investigation will show a hospital that has issues but is improving.

“We have to sail the ship and rebuild it all at the same time,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, to change the culture of an organization.”

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he supports the OPEGA review but he wants lawmakers to keep in mind that the reforms are underway. “There have been a lot of positive changes under new management,” Burns said.

But Katz said that, while managers might say things are going well, he’s heard from numerous current and former employees who say the work culture needs to change.

“Just last November, I heard the message that things are going to be fine, and a few months later we find out that things are not so fine after all,” Katz said.

Harper has touted a steep decline in the use of restraints and seclusion since he became interim director this spring, and quarterly reports from Riverview show such incidents have dropped dramatically since that time. Last year, Riverview’s use of seclusion was more than 10 times the national average.

Beth Ashcroft, OPEGA director, said there is some doubt about the reliability of the data the hospital collects so that regulators can track its progress. A preliminary review indicated there may be problems with the data, she said.

“We have already seen where there’s potential weaknesses in their (data collection) processes,” Ashcroft said after her testimony. She declined to elaborate because of the pending investigation.

Harper told the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday that he’s “confident” in Riverview’s numbers. “I’m pretty sure our numbers are right on,” he said.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, said employee accounts of abuse resemble those uncovered at the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, which closed in 2003.

“I’m concerned that a lot of the culture of AMHI was planted and allowed to take root at Riverview,” Craven said.

She said something is “terribly wrong” at Riverview when employees look the other way as abuse occurs. “This is not ordinary behavior,” Craven said.

There also have been high-profile cases of patients attacking employees, including two incidents in August.

Ashcroft said the scope of the OPEGA investigation will be limited to avoid duplicating efforts of other agencies that are also looking into practices at Riverview. Daniel Wathen, the court master charged with making sure that Riverview is treating patients well and complying with a consent decree that originated with AMHI, has said he will start a formal investigation next month. Ashcroft said the state Attorney General’s Office, through its Health Care Crimes Unit, is also looking at Riverview incidents.

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