AUGUSTA — Democratic leaders called out Republican Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday, faulting him for a variety of “actions and inactions,” saying the latest of them involves Riverview Psychiatric Center, the embattled state mental hospital.

Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, House chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, held a news conference to air their complaints Wednesday in the State House Hall of Flags within earshot of the governor’s office.

Grant said LePage has been shirking responsibility for the Department of Health and Human Services, particularly in addressing problems with Riverview patient and staff safety as well as the 12-month loss in federal funding for that institution.

“Maine people deserve competency and they deserve accountability,” Grant said, noting that the general election was only 39 days away.

LePage faces U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, and independent Eliot Cutler on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Grant cited a host of other problems Democrats place squarely on LePage: an investigation involving the shredding of public documents at the Maine Center of Disease Control & Prevention, problems with MaineCare ride-brokering contracts that left people stranded and a welfare study by a consultant that included plagiarized passages.

Almost immediately after the news conference, Riverview’s acting superintendent Jay Harper released a statement through the department decrying the Democrats for using the hospital as a political football.

“It is unconscionable that the Maine Democratic Party is using people with serious mental illness, who have been court-ordered to receive psychiatric care, to further their political agenda,” Harper said in the statement.

The 92-bed hospital, with some 358 employees, lost certification by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services a year ago and is estimated to be losing $20 million annually in federal funds as a result.

The state is appealing that loss of certification and in the meantime applying for federal certification as a 72-bed psychiatric hospital. The 20-bed Lower Saco Unit, which is the intake unit for most patients placed at Riverview by court order and the site of most of the assaults reported, is being operated as a stand-alone facility.

On Wednesday, the Government Oversight Committee, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers, voted to have the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigate the problems at Riverview.

“It’s OPEGA, not the governor, that’s going to investigate the ongoing issues that resulted in the loss of $20 million in federal funding,” Grant said. “Investigative reports have shown that working conditions are unsafe and lives are at risk.”

Addressing LePage via the news media, Grant asked, “Gov. LePage, what are you going to do?”

Harper said the hospital has made improvements in safety and in addressing patients’ rights issues by replacing corrections officers with acuity specialists. He also said staff members and patients can share their concerns directly with him and that every incident of alleged patient abuse is investigated.

Harper addressed a recent revelation about a state investigation that concluded that abuse had occurred in December when a patient who was nude and in a defensive position was pepper-sprayed by a corrections officer and kept in restraints for hours in violation of hospital policy.

“They are basing their criticism on a headline about a 10-month-old incident, rather than focusing on the reforms that have been underway for months,” he said. “Not only are they ignoring the many changes that have been made in personnel and policy at Riverview Psychiatric Center, but they are causing undue duress for the patients and family members of those who are receiving care at (Riverview Psychiatric Center).”

Harper was appointed to the superintendent’s post in March following the ouster of Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen in what Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew called a needed leadership change.

In his turn at the microphone, Jackson minced no words, saying LePage failed to protect workers at Riverview. Two employees there, a nurse and a mental health worker, have been the victims of particularly vicious attacks at the hospital within the past 18 months.

“Today I ask you, Gov. LePage, how are you going to protect Maine workers?” he said.

Alex Willette, communication director for the Committee to Re-Elect Paul LePage, responded to the Democrats’ accusations in an emailed statement.

“Once again the Maine Democratic Party is reaching into the Dumpster to try to prop up their second pick candidate Michael Michaud,” he said. “Using these patients with mental health problems and the hard working staff at Riverview as political pawns is absolutely disgusting, and further proves how desperate Michaud is getting having no accomplishments to run on.”

Farnsworth said LePage has allowed “rampant mismanagement on his watch. This mismanagement has cost taxpayers millions of dollars while causing real harm to some of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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