AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage vowed to stop accepting federal funds for Riverview Psychiatric Center next month unless the Legislature helps figure out how to manage patients sent to the hospital by the criminal court system.

But Democratic lawmakers complained that the administration has offered only vague and sometimes conflicting proposals to house and treat some of the psychiatric hospital’s most challenging patients.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” said Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “If the department is serious about this, they should be able to answer these questions.”

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has been trying since 2013 to regain federal certification for the 92-bed Augusta psychiatric facility after an audit found problems with patient care and management. Without certification, the Maine DHHS could be required to repay an estimated $20 million a year in federal funds flowing to Riverview.

The LePage administration has been sparring with lawmakers since last year, after the Legislature rejected two proposals submitted late in the legislative session to create either 14-bed or 50-bed facilities for “forensic” patients deemed not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.

On Tuesday, LePage signaled that his patience is running thin and sought to increase pressure on lawmakers by threatening to turn away the federal funding.

“The federal law says you can’t use federal money to pay for (these) patients. We’ve been doing that,” LePage told attendees at a Farmingdale forum. “We’ve been asking and asking and asking the Legislature to change the laws since we’ve been here. They’re not doing it. In March of this year, if they don’t do it in this session, then I will stop taking the (federal) money because right now we owe them $30 million.”

CLARIFYING WHAT DHHS WANTS TO DO

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday that the governor “is not interested in accumulating any more debt that Maine taxpayers will have to pay back.” Asked how DHHS would cover the loss of federal funds, Bennett said it is the Legislature’s job, not the governor’s, to appropriate funds.

“This issue has been ongoing and we need the Legislature’s help,” Bennett said. “We have made several proposals that have been rejected.”

Gattine, however, told a DHHS official Tuesday that it isn’t clear to him what the administration wants.

Earlier Tuesday, LePage told Bangor radio station WVOM that his administration still hopes to build a separate facility to house “between 15 and 20 very violent people.” The governor said such a facility is preferable to another option – being actively pursued by DHHS through legislation – to house violent or difficult-to-manage forensic patients within the Maine State Prison’s Intensive Mental Health Unit in Warren.

Yet when asked about the governor’s statements earlier in the day, DHHS Deputy Commissioner Ricker Hamilton said he was unaware of any plans to seek legislative authorization for a stand-alone facility this year. That prompted a terse exchange between Ricker and Gattine about if or when the department will present its plan to the committee.

“My frustration is that it continues to be very fluid, from my perspective, and it continues to change,” Gattine said.

Ricker replied that the department has offered multiple solutions to the Legislature.

“Riverview is a high priority for us – we found the money last session to fund those beds,” said Ricker, his tone of voice showing growing impatience with Gattine’s repeated questions. “So we provided you the vehicle and the funding for those beds. The Legislature decided to spend that $3.5 million on other priorities other than the staff and the patients at Riverview.”

The money would have provided 14 beds for forensic patients at various facilities owned by private vendors.

Hamilton also declined to respond to a list of recommendations released Monday by Court Master Daniel Wathen, a former Maine chief justice, on how to address staffing shortages and other problems at Riverview. The department has 30 days to respond to Wathen’s recommendations.

COMMITTEE ACCUSED OF SLOW RESPONSE

On Wednesday, Gattine said he was disappointed by Hamilton’s “evasive and unhelpful” responses. He noted that the department provided a one-page PowerPoint slide and no accompanying details to support its proposal for an $18 million, 50-bed stand-alone facility during the final weeks of last year’s legislative session. The committee has yet to see more details.

“In all of these things I hear the department talking about, there are concepts that are worthy of discussion,” Gattine said. “My concern is that the concepts came to us very, very late in the legislative session and there was not enough time.”

The tone of Tuesday’s committee meeting, although tense at times, was mildcompared with previous exchanges over Riverview between lawmakers and DHHS officials. At least three legislative committees have held hearings on Riverview.

“This process has been frustrating, duplicative and wasteful,” DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew said in December after members of the Government Oversight Committee threatened to subpoena her to appear. “It is disrespectful to our hard-working staff and the people they serve, taking them away from their core responsibilities, consuming hundreds of hours of time, and thus far the committees have produced nothing of value in terms of results.”

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, a Chelsea Republican who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, expressed similar frustrations Tuesday with her legislative colleagues who have opposed past proposals from DHHS.

“And meanwhile, that hospital continues to be in crisis,” Sanderson said. “We can’t stabilize this hospital until we give them the tools to do so.”

SITUATION SIMMERS, MORE DISCUSSION

Adding to the chorus of discontent, LePage said the combination of low pay, “over-the-top” media reports on the situation at Riverview and “kangaroo courts in Augusta” are worsening the staffing situation by scaring off potential recruits to fill jobs at Riverview.

“I am so ashamed at some of the people upstairs that are taking ill people and they are making mockery of them for political gain,” LePage said on WVOM.

The debate over Riverview is likely to continue throughout the legislative session.

On Feb. 24, the Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill proposed by DHHS and sponsored by Sanderson to allow the department to house some violent or dangerous forensic patients at Maine State Prison’s mental health unit. Mental health advocates and Democratic members of the committee are expected to oppose the measure on grounds that it would “criminalize” people who have not been convicted of a crime.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH