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Maine Lawmakers Seek More Scrutiny of State Psychiatric Hospital

Mal Leary

AUGUSTA, Maine - Maine's embattled Riverview Psychiatric Center is about to be scrutinized once again, this time by the Legislature's non-partisan Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability. The latest review follows the hospital's loss of some $20 million in federal Medicaid funding because of safety and compliance violations. Now, in addition to an audit to ensure that the facility is in compliance with a state-approved consent decree, lawmakers on the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee are launching their own limited investigation.

This month, Republican state Sen. Roger Katz found out about another problem at the troubled Riverview Psychiatric Center. An investigative report by the Maine Sunday Telegram revealed that a security officer confronted by a naked patient responded by coating her with pepper spray. She was then held in restraints for nearly three hours after the incident.

Katz says he was even more shocked to learn that the incident actually took place nine months ago. And now, Katz says, some lawmakers are questioning reports from the state Department of Health and Human Services about how things are getting better at Riverview.

"But then, on the other side, you hear from 10 or more people who worked there, or who recently worked there, who said that, maybe, things are getting a little better - but not much," Katz said. "And there are still major problems there - and I think we've got a role in trying to sort that out."

Katz sits on the Legislature's non-partisan Government Oversight Committee, the watchdog panel that oversees the state Office of Program Evaluation and Governmental Accountability. The committee has unanimously directed the OPEGA investigators to look into Riverview's reporting protocols for issues involving patient and staff safety and compliance issues - and to place a high priority on the probe.

Katz says he believes that based on what he's been able to discover so far, the results could be disturbing. "There are, I think, some credible reports here of patient abuse, about failure to report things up the chain of command when things do happen," Katz said.

Those are the kinds of problems that led to the firing of the last Riverview superintendent after spot inspections by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revealed non-compliance issues that resulted in the loss of federal funding. Meanwhile, an audit of the hospital has been ordered by the court master who oversees the provisions of the Augusta Mental Health Institute consent decree, that mandates quality of care for Riverview patients.

State Sen. Margaret Craven, a Lewiston Democrat, fears that, ultimately, Riverview's problems will be traced traced back to the AMHI. "And it's not a blame game for anybody," she says, "except that it happens - it happened at AMHI, it happened at Pineland, it happens, and I'm worried that a lot of the culture was carried over from AMHI and just planted there and it grew - even though there was a lot of cleaning house in the meantime," Craven said.

OPEGA Director Beth Ashcroft says her investigators will look at all patient and staff incidents going back two years to determine whether Riverview followed its own reporting policies.