AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are considering a bill that would funnel more money into Maine’s mental health crisis system in hopes of freeing county jails of the burden of caring for the state’s mentally ill.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday that she estimates it would cost about $1.2 million to beef up staffing at existing mental health facilities that have unused beds and to fund a mobile response unit.

Warren said 86 percent of those being held in Maine’s 15 county jails were being given medication for their mental health conditions.

“We are relying on our correctional system to house mental health patients,” she told the committee, citing data compiled by the Maine Sheriffs’ Association.

“Jails are loud, steel-on-steel doors-slamming environments created to punish offenders,” Warren said. “Locking someone up who is experiencing mental illness is not only cruel, it’s traumatic and damaging; it costs us more and ensures that resources will be spent for a longer amount of time.”

Warren said Maine already spends $95 million a year on county jails, with 80 percent of that being paid by local property taxes. The Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Policy Review will prepare a formal cost estimate for her bill.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, said the focus of the measure was to make existing services more readily available to those in crisis, noting that there are providers who have beds available but not enough staff.

The bill, L.D. 803, which was carried over from 2019, previously sought to create four regional intervention centers. An amended version was presented to the committee on Monday, with a focus on supporting existing facilities rather than establishing new regional centers.

The measure also seeks to strengthen two crisis hotlines for those seeking help.

Warren said the proposal was a result of a mental health working group that the Legislature set up in 2019. The 19-member working group included both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, experts from the field of mental health treatment, law enforcement and a consumer of mental health services.

Jenna Mehnert, the executive director of the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is a member of the working group, but said she was not aware of the proposed changes to the bill until Monday.

Mehnert offered neutral testimony on the legislation, saying that while NAMI Maine supported all the things Warren and Breen hope to achieve with the bill, they were taking a piecemeal approach to repairing a system that needs a comprehensive overhaul after years of neglect.

“We have significant concerns about the lack of a comprehensive mental health system in the state of Maine and we want a comprehensive system built so that people are not criminalized and people do not end up in the criminal justice system when they should not be, but we want to make sure that we are intentional,” Mehnert said.

She said many of the Medicaid reimbursement rates for mental health services have lagged far behind the costs of providing those services, with some rates that have not changed since the minimum wage was $5 an hour in the late 1990s. It is now $12 an hour.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton supported the legislation, saying his jail is dealing with inmates who often find themselves in the criminal justice system as a result of their underlying mental health or substance use issues.

Morton, who is the president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, told the committee of one inmate who is so unstable that two officers have to take care of her because she attacks the officers “every single time” they open her cell.

He said he can have multiple inmates with varying problems all housed side-by-side in his jail. “How do you separate people appropriately in a setting like that, where they can get the help they need?” Morton asked.

Morton said the sheriff’s association agreed with Warren that incarcerating an individual with mental illness was not the “most humane approach.”

The state’s serious shortage of available facilities and staff to adequately treat those facing mental health issues or substance use disorders has become a key focus for lawmakers in 2020. Earlier this year, the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee was urged to do something to prevent those with mental health problems from languishing in county jails.

Dozens of people testified, including retired Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills, who discussed her work to help find treatment solutions for those with mental illness who are often locked in county jails for weeks or months with inadequate treatment.

The Mental Health Working Group was established to study the state’s mental health systems and review all the settings that deliver mental health care, including in the community, hospitals, emergency departments, jails and prisons.

Maine has had problems providing bed space for those with forensic mental health problems since 2013, with the decertification and loss of federal funding at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta – the larger of the state’s two secure mental health hospitals – the most prominent example.

Riverview has regained its certification and funding. On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said there was currently no waiting list at the 92-bed facility, which houses patients who have been deemed not criminally responsible for their offenses or who are awaiting a forensic evaluation to determine if they are mentally competent to stand trial.

“Patients deemed not criminally responsible are admitted within 24 hours,” said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for DHHS. “Patients who are incarcerated and in need of an inpatient evaluation to determine if they are competent to stand trial are admitted based on when the department receives the order from the court, and are prioritized according to their mental health needs and the hospital’s current capacity to provide safe and appropriate care.”

Farwell said admissions to Riverview have increased 225 percent since April 2016.

She noted that DHHS is seeking proposals to establish a crisis center pilot program in Cumberland County and plans to make funds available to help mental health service providers recruit and train staff to help patients manage their medications.

In addition, she said, Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget seeks $1.1 million to restore a forensic crisis team, to divert people with severe mental illness from jails and emergency rooms, and transition those already in prison back into the community.

 

 

 

 

 

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