Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Jay Harper, superintendent of Riverview Psychiatric Center, acknowledged at a hearing last Friday the challenges facing the state-run hospital, but also emphasized the progress they feel the facility has made since its federal certification was pulled in 2013.

Any good feelings drawn out by those details were tempered, however, by the testimony three days earlier from Riverview employees exhausted by thousands of hours of mandated overtime.

Those are the same concerns that have been voiced by staff members for some time, and the fact that employees say they feel as much pressure and stress as ever makes it imperative that open positions are filled without further delay.

The LePage administration is working on long-term solutions to the challenges facing Riverview. But first, Mayhew and Harper have to end the acute issues that are harming the well-being of hospital employees and putting patients at risk.

The employees’ testimony came at a forum organized by Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta. Around 50 current and former staff members said they are being pushed to their limit by staffing shortages that have forced 18,000 to 24,000 hours of overtime in the last year.

One-third of the hospital’s nursing positions and one-tenth of the mental health worker positions are empty — 51 positions out of 364. Without enough people to cover shifts on a normal rotation, workers have been forced to take on overtime, and they often have their shifts extended for hours at the last minute, disrupting their home lives and leaving them tired at work when, for safety and efficacy, they need to be alert. As a result, employees are leaving, compounding an already bad situation.


To those employees, and the Government Oversight Committee, Mayhew and Harper said help is on the way. Twenty-nine vacancies have been filled since mid-December, they said, and overtime has been reduced by one-third in the last year. They continue to aggressively recruit workers, building a per-diem roster as a short-term fix, while considering shift changes, pay raises and other initiatives to hire and retain staff members.

That process has been made more difficult by similar efforts at other area hospitals, including Maine General and Togus. (Officials have also blamed the “bad press” the hospital has generated.)

They said work since Harper’s hire in early 2014 has built a foundation upon which Riverview can now build. They have put new structures and expectations in place, they said, and as a result, there have been no patient care violations in the last two years, and staff injuries have dropped from at least 20 a month a year ago to no more than nine a month now.

But none of that does any good if the staffing shortage continues to drive away experienced and capable employees. In his testimony to the GOC, Court Master Daniel Wathen, who oversees the consent agreement that governs how Riverview must care for patients, said it well: “Their initiatives are good. (But) the staffing issues are killing their initiatives.”

Unflattering media coverage may indeed play a role in the hospital’s inability to attract employees. But the press didn’t make up the circumstances that first brought attention to the problems at Riverview, nor did it overstate the exasperation expressed by employees last week.

However, if officials, with the aid of the Legislature, can successfully fill the vacant positions and restore morale, hospital employees will no doubt become the hospital’s best advocates.

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