AUGUSTA — Local legislators said Wednesday they have been repeatedly rebuffed by the state when seeking information about a new 21-bed secure, privately run rehabilitation facility proposed to be built next to Riverview Psychiatric Center to serve patients who have committed crimes.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said he and the other three members of the Augusta legislative delegation have been trying for more than a month to get representatives of the state Department of Health and Human Services to brief them and city officials about the potentially significant project. Department officials have declined to meet with them or provide information about the proposal, he said.

“We’ve been trying to get answers to these questions for weeks. We’ve contacted the department on three separate occasions to set up a meeting and been told, three times, the department declines to do it,” Katz said. “Presumably we all want the same thing, which is to have humane, effective treatment for the seriously mentally ill done in a cost-effective way. I just don’t understand why the administration views the community and its representatives as adversaries here.”

The Augusta Planning Board on Tuesday tabled any action on the state’s request for a major development permit for the project until its October meeting, following a public hearing in which board members cited similar concerns as legislators. They couldn’t get answers to many of their questions about the project from a consultant who represented the state, nor were they provided any details about who would be placed there, or what kind of treatment or security would be provided at the new facility.

Board members debated whether the facility will be a hospital or a correctional facility, which is a significant distinction because it would undergo a more thorough review and have to meet higher neighborhood compatibility standards if it’s a correctional facility instead of a hospital.

“It sounds like you need somebody from the state that can describe exactly what’s going to occur inside this facility, so you can decide if it meets the definition of a hospital,” Matt Nazar, city development director, said after board members expressed frustration Tuesday about a lack of information from the state about the proposal. “I think you need someone from the state to describe the facility. That’s your first step, to figure out what this thing is.”

The proposal is part of a state Department of Health and Human Services effort to regain federal certification for Riverview and the $20 million annual federal funding reimbursement that comes with it.

The federal agency that oversees Riverview funding revoked the hospital’s certification about two years ago after regulators found many problems during an audit, including the use of pepper spray, stun guns and handcuffs on patients.

In August 2015, Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said creating a new, separate treatment facility for mentally ill patients who have committed crimes might be the only way for the state hospital to regain that certification.

LITTLE INFORMATION

Samantha Edwards, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday the facility is neither a hospital nor a correctional facility.

“It is a secure forensic rehabilitation facility,” she said by email. “It is a residential group setting for those forensic patients placed in the custody of the DHHS commissioner by the courts who the courts have not allowed back into the community as of yet. These individuals, however, no longer need a hospital level of care.”

Edwards said the Department of Administrative and Financial Services’ Bureau of General Services handles building projects for the state and they were present at Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting.

She was noncommittal when asked if the state DHHS would respond to the Planning Board’s request for a representative who can answer questions about the operations of the facility to attend the October meeting.

Asked if the department planned to meet with members of the Augusta legislative delegation and why it has thus far declined to meet with them, Edwards said the department has spent many hours discussing the overall operations of Riverview and specific proposals for new facilities with the Legislature.

Katz said the Augusta delegation — which consists of Katz and representatives Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta; Donna Doore, D-Augusta; and Lori Fowle, D-Vassalboro — received a written response from the department’s legislative liaison that “said basically they think we’ve got all the information we need. Which is baffling.”

Fowle said the delegation has constituents with concerns about the proposal, some of whom are employees of Riverview.

“I’d like to know what, exactly, they’re proposing,” she said. “It’s hard to tell if it’s a good proposal or a poor proposal if you don’t know anything about it. We’d like a heads up and to be part of what is going on. It hasn’t been very transparent.”

DHHS officials have previously said the facility will be privately run.

Katz said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to such a switch, but it needs to be discussed first.

“It might be the greatest idea ever, but there are a lot of questions to be answered. It’s a big deal for Riverview and a big deal for the city,” he said. “Privatizing this facility may be an excellent idea, but it is a major step and there ought to be full and complete transparency, and to date the response has been ‘no, no, no.'”

Katz said unanswered questions about the proposal include:

• whether it will be privately run and, if so, what will be the process to select the provider;

• how would the removal of patients from Riverview to the new facility affect Riverview;

• what will the project’s source of funding be;

• and how will the new facility fit into the overall plan for treatment of people with mental illness in Maine.

Edwards said the source of funding for the project, which officials estimated will cost between $3 million and $5 million, is “available funds that the Legislature has appropriated specifically for serving mentally ill individuals who need care.”

SECURITY QUESTIONS

Katz also said legislators have questions about the level of security of the building, concerns also expressed by Planning Board members Tuesday after consultant Dave Nadeau said the building would be locked to prevent patients from escaping or harming themselves or others. He said it would have a 14-foot-high fence topped by razor wire around its recreation area, but would not be a “high security” building.

“I remember when Sharon Taylor was murdered in the arboretum by a patient from (the former Augusta Mental Health Institute),” said A. Delaine Nye, board member. “So my concern is the level of security. I’d feel better if you could say, ‘yes ma’am, it’s a high security unit.'”

Taylor was 15 years old and a Cony High School freshman in 1985 when she was murdered by Paul Addington in what was, at the time, the Pine Tree State Arboretum across the street from the former Augusta Mental Health Institute complex. Addington was living in a halfway house at AMHI when the crime took place, according to trial testimony. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder.

In response to security concerns, Edwards responded via email Wednesday: “The facility would have the appropriate security to ensure that forensic patients under the care of the commissioner are safe and able to complete their planned treatment and rehabilitation effectively. There are extensive building details, including security features, included in the application presented at Tuesday’s board meeting.”

Katz said the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, of which he is a member, recently sent written questions on a number of topics to Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, including questions about the proposed new standalone facility adjacent to Riverview.

“Any Legislature depends on good, solid, reliable information from the executive department,” Katz said. “When it becomes difficult to get that information, it makes passing good public policy that much harder.”

The Legislature doesn’t return to session until January.

Application materials for the proposal state it would house patients “found not criminally responsible for committing crimes by reason of mental defect or insanity and, therefore, cannot be housed within either a state prison or a state psychiatric facility.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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