AUGUSTA — Legislators on the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee said Tuesday they were disappointed with the written responses to their questions about Riverview Psychiatric Center and with the absence from the hearing of the hospital’s acting superintendent, Jay Harper.

Rep. Michael Carey, D-Lewiston, said the responses were “not nearly detailed enough for the problems we’ve been having.”

The state hospital, which treats criminal and civil patients, has been under a microscope for the last year and a half or so, ever since a forensic patient attacked a mental health worker, beating her about the head and leaving a penpoint embedded in her hand.

Reaction to that episode included bringing in corrections officers armed with handcuffs and stun guns to monitor certain patients and insure staff safety. It also attracted the attention of federal regulators and eventually cost it certification by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which amounts to about $20 million in reimbursement annually.

Another attack, allegedly by a patient, left a nurse bloody and bruised and increased concerns about employee safety at the 92-bed hospital, which treats civil patients sent there from other psychiatric facilities and forensic patients sent there by a judge’s order in connection with criminal cases.

Harper was named acting superintendent in March, following the outster of Mary Louise McEwen.

Carey outlined some of those problems in providing a timeline of the past 18 months.

“We were told 12 months ago this was a six-month problem and three of four units were up for recertification,” he said. The latest recertification survey found other concerns, including deficiencies in tracking patient treatment.

“This is a massive problem,” Carey said, adding that Harper should be there to respond to such questions as “What’s the path? How do we know it’s working, and what’s the timeline?”

Nicholas Adolphsen, director of governmental relations for the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the hospital, apologized for Harper’s absence and told the legislators they could hear directly from Harper on Oct. 15, when he is scheduled to appear before the Health and Human Services Committee.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, also sought information on a plan of correction and a timetable.

“We are very, very eager to work with the administration to solve this problem, but we need the administration to engage with us,” she said.

Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, told Adolphsen that current and former Riverview workers have been contacting legislators directly about their concerns. Six of them came to see her.

“None of us thinks that it’s an easy job or easy to do,” Craven said. “It feels to me that we’re not being taken seriously with our concerns when we’re told things are going fine.”

She said the administration has said there is now enough money for staff, yet employees continue to say they feel unsafe.

Craven told Adolphsen she received a call from a deputy sheriff in Cumberland County about a person suffering from mental illness who was sent from the jail to Riverview for evaluation and assessment and then returned to the jail without an administrative review and without treatment.

“The problem is not even (all) inside the walls but extends out into the jails,” she said. “The deputy sheriff didn’t know what he was supposed to do.”

After Tuesday’s hearing, Craven said, “I’m just so disappointed.” She said she and others had high hopes when Harper took over because he had been a strong advocate for the patients.

She said she was disappointed as well that the hospital had filled only half of the 16 acuity specialist positions the administration said were needed to replace the corrections officers.

“I would have hired acuity specialists from the outside to break the culture that was carried over from (the Augusta Mental Health Institute),” she said.

That institute was the predecessor to Riverview.

She also referred to revelations last week about a woman who had been pepper-sprayed at Riverview in December and kept in restraints for about four hours afterward.

Craven added that she saw some encouraging signs: Riverview is under investigation by three agencies — the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, of which she is a member; the Healthcare Crimes Unit of Attorney General’s Office; and Court Master Daniel Wathen, who oversees a consent decree that governs how the state is to provide treatment for people with severe and persistent mental illness.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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