Gov. Paul LePage inherited — and cleaned up — several messes in Augusta when he came to office.

The state owed hospitals $500 million, and after overcoming numerous objections from Democratic lawmakers, he paid them back in full.

The state’s Medicaid program was regularly in the red by hundreds of millions of dollars, and after overcoming the objections of Democratic lawmakers, he put eligibility in line with other states and got MaineCare spending under control.

Similar turnaround stories can be found at the Maine Turnpike Authority, the Maine State Housing Authority and elsewhere since the governor took office.

One issue that remains unresolved, however, is the unmet needs at Riverview Psychiatric Center. So far, Democratic lawmakers like Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Drew Gattine of Westbrook and their allies seem intent on obstructing every opportunity to improve operations at the state mental hospital.

In August 2013, the LePage administration proposed legislation to create a unit at the state prison specifically designed to treat the most dangerous forensic patients — those deemed “incompetent to stand trial” or “not criminally responsible” for crimes by reason of mental illness.

The Legislature criticized and watered down this legislation to exclude “incompetent to stand trial” and “not criminally responsible” patients, the very patients for whom the new unit would serve a purpose, rendering it effectively useless in resolving Riverview’s challenges.

One of the primary reasons Riverview lost federal certification and today still faces the threat of lost federal funding is that “not criminally responsible” and “incompetent to stand trial” patients are required to be separated from the civil patients at Riverview who are in need of a hospital level of care.

In another attempt to separate violent offenders from civil patients and ensure that every Riverview inpatient truly requires a hospital level of care, the LePage administration proposed earlier this year to establish a “BASE Unit” to serve as a mental health triage to determine the level of care needed for incoming patients and a secure residential facility to treat forensic patients who do not require Riverview’s services.

Rep. Gattine and lawmakers summarily rejected that proposal as well, complaining about a lack of detail in the proposal but declining to continue the discussion and even refusing to carry over the bill until the next legislative session — one of the only pieces of legislation Rep. Gattine’s committee refused to carry over.

When the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Riverview, asked committee lawmakers to vote for funding for 12 much-needed staff specially trained to handle violent patients, Rep. Gattine again refused until the last minute, delaying their hiring needlessly.

Many of Riverview’s staffing problems arise from onerous union work rules, and some of the solutions, such as the BASE Unit and secure residential treatment facilities, would entail hiring non-union staff. Unfortunately, Democratic lawmakers’ political allegiance to union bosses prevents them from bucking the state employee labor unions and working constructively to address these very real problems.

Another possible reason why Rep. Gattine and other Democratic lawmakers seem intent on obstructing and denying nearly every attempt by the LePage administration to improve the situation at Riverview is pure and simple politics.

They have launched relentless public attacks against the governor, using Riverview as their weapon of choice, for years. Actually fixing the problems would take that weapon away and leave Gov. LePage with credit for cleaning up yet another mess in a state government built by the decades-old Maine Democratic political machine.

Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper has even brought attention to the debilitating effect of these political attacks on the morale of the people who go to work every day at Riverview, and the governor has relayed that concern to Democratic politicians. Nonetheless, they continue their attacks.

The LePage administration and the DHHS have put forward multiple proposals to improve Riverview that have yet to be acted upon or even discussed seriously by lawmakers. The ball is in their court.

When the administration has successfully put an idea before the Legislature, we have seen positive results, such as with the hiring of acuity specialists to handle violent inpatients. This has resulted in a reduction of psychiatric emergencies from 17 in January, to eight in April, and just three in July.

If Rep. Gattine and Gov. LePage’s critics in the Legislature are serious about improving the level of care provided at Riverview, they will quit the petty attacks, stop saying “no,” and work with the administration in good faith to bring about positive reforms at the psychiatric hospital.

State Reps. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, and Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, serve on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees, respectively.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.