Gov. Paul LePage will soon be gone, but he plans to leave behind a monument to his legacy of mismanagement in the mental health system.

It will be a 16-bed psychiatric facility in Bangor to be run by a for-profit prison health care contractor based in Tennessee. The so-called “step-down” facility will cost the state $5 million, and will not be part of any articulated strategy for meeting the state’s mental health needs. If completed, it will stand as a testament to the governor’s pettiness and an example for future state officials of the exact wrong way to address a public health crisis.

It all started in the governor’s first months in office, when he changed eligibility for Medicaid (known here as MaineCare) to cut adults from the program if they had no children and they were “able-bodied,” a category that includes people with undiagnosed mental illness and substance use disorders, leaving providers with no way to pay to treat them.

FIGHTING REFORM

LePage continued his assault on community-based treatment by vetoing Medicaid expansion for the first time in 2013. He has continued to resist this reform ever since, including by appealing a court order requiring him to comply with the results of a 2017 referendum, delaying the distribution of much-needed funding until after he leaves office Jan. 2.

Also in 2013, the state lost federal funding for Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, after investigators cataloged numerous deficiencies, including the use of stun guns and handcuffs to subdue patients.

When it became clear that a small facility was needed for patients who needed to transition to a less secure environment, LePage blustered. When a legislative committee denied initial approval of his plan to build the step-down facility in Augusta because it was light on details about how the state-funded services would be delivered, the negotiations ceased.

He went ahead and started construction in Bangor, planning to use surplus funds he said were available in Department of Health and Human Services accounts.

LEGAL SNAG

That part of the plan hit a snag earlier this month when former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, the court-appointed advocate for consumers covered by the Augusta Mental Health Institute consent decree, wrote that LePage could not fund the project with $5 million that had been appropriated by the Legislature to pay for community-based mental health services. LePage’s office indicated that the governor would go ahead and complete the contract, leaving it up to the next Legislature to figure out how to pay for it.

Meanwhile, Mainers are suffering. People with untreated mental illness show up in the county jails, homeless shelters and makeshift encampments. While the governor sits on millions of dollars in funding, programs that provide services to people in their homes or in community settings are starved for resources.

For eight years, Mainers with mental illness have been waiting for help while their governor wants to establish his dominance over the Legislature in a constitutional system that is supposed to give them co-equal powers. When Maine families desperately needed him to put aside his ego and work with the opposition, he refused.

LePage may plan to go ahead with the contract, but Correct Care Recovery Solutions should have second thoughts about the deal. LePage won’t be in charge anymore after Jan. 2, and his way of doing business should be long gone as well.

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