AUGUSTA – The Senate voted narrowly on Wednesday to block a LePage administration proposal to allow some dangerous or violent psychiatric patients to be held in a special Maine State Prison mental health unit.

The Senate vote follows similar action in the Maine House, suggesting that the governor’s proposal is likely dead for the year.

Gov. Paul LePage introduced the bill, L.D. 1577, to allow the transfers as a wwith some of the most violent patients in Augusta’s state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center. But the proposal immediately encountered opposition from civil liberties groups and some Democratic legislators who accused the administration of attempting to imprison people who had not been convicted of any crimes.

On Tuesday, the governor’s proposal to allow such transfers to the Intensive Mental Health Unit fell one vote short after several Republican senators joined Democrats to vote against it. The governor had personally testified in support of the measure earlier this session.

Instead, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a version that would require the state to house psychiatric patients in a state-owned hospital or, if no beds are available, at another facility that is nationally accredited as providing hospital-level care. The language would prohibit housing psychiatric patients who have not been convicted of crimes in the Warren prison’s mental health unit.

The Democratic-controlled House on Tuesday passed an identical version of L.D. 1577 on an 81-66 vote. It faces additional votes in both chambers but does not have enough support to override an anticipated LePage veto.

“The very idea that patients who have never been convicted of a crime would be put in a prison setting is appalling, and I’m thankful we were able to defeat this bill,” Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said in a statement. “Instead, we passed a responsible bill that recognizes the sometimes dangerous environment at Riverview while respecting patients’ rights.”

The LePage administration has been fighting with lawmakers for more than a year about the situation at Riverview.

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 now flowing to Riverview.

The debate focuses on so-called “forensic” patients who have been referred to Riverview after being deemed incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible for their actions. Lawmakers have also rejected efforts to create a separate, stand-alone facility to house forensic patients. In a separate vote Thursday, the Senate killed such a proposal that had lingered in the Legislature since last year.

Earlier this winter, LePage threatened to stop accepting federal money for Riverview unless lawmakers took action to address the concerns about forensic patients.

 


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