Southern Maine Health Care is opening a new 40-bed psychiatric center at Sanford Medical Center on Tuesday that will more than triple existing capacity for in-patient mental health services in York County.

Maine has long experienced a shortage of crisis beds for mental health patients, which has led to some patients languishing in hospital emergency departments for weeks while waiting for psychiatric beds to open up.

“People who get stuck in the ED for days or weeks is not conducive to optimal patient care,” said Dr. Rob McCarley, vice president of medical affairs for Maine Behavioral Healthcare. “This is like a relief valve.”

Jeff Beaule installs a grill in the ceiling in the intake area of a new psychiatric unit at Southern Maine Healthcare in Sanford on Monday, October 5, 2020. There are very few inpatient beds for psychiatric care in Maine and the 44-bed inpatient unit will triple capacity in York County. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

McCarley said the added capacity will not solve the shortage problem, but it will at least alleviate some of the backlogs, especially in southern Maine. The initiative will also create 70 new jobs to care for the patients.

The new psychiatric center – which will cost $11 million – increases capacity from 12 beds at Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford to 40 in Sanford. The 12-bed center in Biddeford will close to make way for the new psychiatric center. The Sanford center will partially open Tuesday, with 18 beds that include a five-bed psychiatric emergency department, while the remaining 22 beds will open in late November.

Randy Brocher takes a measurement on the floor of a room in a new psychiatric unit at Southern Maine Healthcare in Sanford on Monday, October 5. There are very few inpatient beds for psychiatric care in Maine and the 44-bed inpatient unit will triple capacity in York County. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

The center is designed for short-term crisis treatment of people suffering from mental health challenges, such as psychosis, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and co-occurring substance use disorders, according to a news release. The state has an official capacity of 500 licensed beds for psychiatric use, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, but many of the beds are not in use.

Both Southern Maine Health Care and Maine Behavioral Healthcare are part of MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center and a sprawling health network that includes nine hospitals in Maine and New Hampshire.

A room in the new psychiatric unit at Southern Maine Healthcare in Sanford. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

The psychiatric center is part of a $34 million renovation project at the Sanford hospital, including a new MRI machine and other technology upgrades, and improvements to sidewalks, lighting and the parking lot.

Nathan Howell, president of Southern Maine Healthcare, said moving from Biddeford, where the rooms were in a “limited space in an older, darker area,” to the new center in Sanford, where the design is “airy” and includes lots of natural light, should signal to patients that they are a priority and help improve care.

“The contrast is important,” Howell said. “We hope that this will not only add more capacity, but lead to greatly improved care.”


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