Legislative leaders of a special Mental Health Working Group will share the results of their work Monday as they push for a larger state investment in responding to the needs of Mainers who lack mental health services.

The group, which met five times last fall, is expected to recommend the establishment of four regional mental health crisis intervention centers that would be operated by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sen. Cathy Breen

Headed by Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, and Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, the 19-member working group was established by a legislative resolve in 2019. It included both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, experts from the field of mental health treatment, law enforcement and a consumer of mental health services.

Warren is the sponsor of a bill, L.D. 803, carried over from the 2019 legislative session that aims to create the four regional intervention centers. The bill requires the centers to be adequately staffed with mental health professionals and peer counselors to help those in a mental health crisis. The centers would be required to admit anyone who asks for help, who is committed there involuntarily by the state or who is brought there by local law enforcement for care.

 

Warren’s bill is meant to increase access to community-based mental health treatment rather than building more long-term institutional settings. A public hearing on the measure is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

About 115,000 Mainers, or nearly one out of every 10 residents of the state, experience mental illness, Warren and Breen said in a statement announcing the press conference. Roughly 40,000 Mainers demonstrate the most severe and chronic forms of mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or severe depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

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, including 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.

Although federal funding for Riverview has since been restored, the 92-bed facility has ongoing waiting lists for patients who are either deemed not criminally responsible for their offenses or who are awaiting a forensic evaluation to determine if they are mentally competent to stand trial.

How many more beds the state needs and how to pay for them are lingering questions for the Legislature and the committee. Lawmakers last year approved adding 45 beds and accompanying staff, but it could be five years before these are ready for patients, officials have said.

Breen and Warren, who is the House chairwoman of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, are expected to highlight some of the working group’s findings and recommendations that are part of the 16-page report to the Legislature.

Among other proposals, the group is calling for increasing reimbursement rates under MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to better cover the costs of providing mental health services.

Breen, as the Senate chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee, has been leading that work on the committee.


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