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Riverview Employees Express Concerns about Staffing

Patty Wight
Maine lawmakers hear concerns from members of the Riverview Psychiatric Center staff.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Insufficient staff, forced overtime and inadequate training are just a few of the problems that staff at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center say are creating safety issues at the Augusta hospital.

Employees spoke at a forum Tuesday night organized by Republican state Sen. Roger Katz, designed to give lawmakers a better sense of working conditions at Riverview.

Staff comments further bolster concerns that have been identified at Riverview over the past few years.

Staffing shortages are still cited by employees as a core problem at Riverview. As a result, says acuity specialist Jodi French, that means mandated overtime, which can start with a double shift and stack up from there.

“You’ve got this 16 1/2 hour shift,” she says. “You’ve got an hour drive there and an hour drive back home, that puts you up to 18 1/2, 19 hours. And then you’ve got to come back in the next day and do another 16 hours. It’s not safe when you’ve got to be alert, awake, aware and watching your fellow coworkers to make sure they’re safe, watching the patients to make sure they stay safe.”

The president of the union that represents mental health workers, Laura Fisher, says that for the past five years, mental health workers clocked between 18,000 and 24,000 hours of overtime per year. Yet even with those extra hours, says mental health worker Shelby Moreau, there isn’t enough staff to give patients extra attention when they have needs above and beyond basic care.

“If we don’t have enough staff on the floor to take care of people properly, that’s a problem,” she says. “We need to be able to take time.”

It’s become such a problem, says nurse Eric Hewett, that staffers are abandoning ship.

“There’s considerable staff turnover,” he says. “I can think of two off of my floor in the last two months — two nurses who left because of mandating.”

Add on the lack of adequate training, Riverview workers say, and the safety issues are even worse. Some acknowledged that the hospital is making an effort to increase training, but mental health worker Kellie Peterson says there’s just one problem: floor staff often can’t attend.

“We don’t have enough staff to cover the floor so we can go to those trainings,” she says. “The higher ups — the administration — they’re the ones going to the training, when we are the front lines. We should have those trainings.”

Riverview has been under heightened scrutiny since 2013, when it lost federal certification — and put $20 million in annual funding at risk — due to safety concerns. Subsequent reports by an independent consultant have identified staffing as a primary concern.

The commissioner of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, Mary Mayhew, says she’s committed to improving safety for both staff and patients.

“There is nothing more important at Riverview than our efforts to support the staff at that hospital and their work to take care of those with mental illness at our hospital,” she says.

Mayhew says Riverview has filled more than 20 positions since mid-December and is working tirelessly to hire more staff and increase flexibility.

“We’ve recently sent out a letter to the Board of Nursing — to all licensed nurses — to encourage them to apply at Riverview,” she says. “We are looking at opportunities to create a per diem pool for mental health workers so we can limit the amount of mandated overtime.”

Katz organized the forum to provide the bipartisan group of lawmakers who attended more clarity on working conditions at Riverview. After hearing about the staffing and safety issues, low wages and a general sense from employees that Riverview’s administration does not support them, Katz says one thing is clear.

“I think we need to be diligent in our oversight function of what’s going on at the hospital and the department, to make sure we’re doing everything we can to recruit and maintain mental health workers, acuity workers, and other front-line people,” he says.

Some of the solutions will involve money, says Katz, but others, he says, don’t involve money at all.