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Lawmakers Focus on Staffing Issues at Riverview

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee spent hours Friday focusing on the ongoing staffing problems at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center.

Some are expressing frustration at what appear to be chronic problems at the Augusta facility.

Riverview was given funding for 50 additional staff positions last year, but many are still unfilled, which has resulted, critics say, in the need for excessive overtime. Staff have complained that their safety and that of patients is in jeopardy.

Appearing before the committee, Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew acknowledged the problems, but says the agency is trying to fill all of the positions. She says Riverview is currently relying on temporary staff to try and meet its needs.

“We just hired 29 people in the last 30 days,” she says. “I hope it’s clear we need to have full-time individuals or part-time employees.”

About 10 percent of all mental health worker positions at the hospital are unfilled, as are about a third of the nursing positions. Lawmakers, including Sen. Chris Johnson, a Democrat from Somerville, say they’re frustrated by the continuing staffing issues.

“If I were in private industry I would look at a problem like that that is still persistent, and I would say either there isn’t really a will to do anything about it or there is a level of incompetence that’s preventing real solutions.” he says.

Court Master Dan Wathen, the former chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court, is overseeing state compliance with a consent decree that dates back to 1990 governing care of those in state mental health facilities. He agrees that Riverview has serious staffing problems but says it is not clear whether they pose a safety risk at the hospital.

“The, you know, ‘mandated overtime, the mandated shifts is actually resulting in serious threats to safety,’” he says. “It may very well be, I don’t want to say it isn’t, but I am saying it hasn’t been clear. Is it good practice? No. Is it sustainable? No. It should not be going on.”

Wathen is preparing a report to the court he will submit next month on the situation. He says any worsening of staffing levels could be the tipping point for action by the court.

“If all of a sudden rather than having 25 nurses missing we’ve got 35, we’re reaching a point where we have to say, ‘Can we continue to operate in this manner?’” he says.

Mayhew and Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper maintain that they are doing all they can to fill vacancies and reduce the pressure on existing staff. Harper says progress is being made — a year ago December there were 3,070 hours of overtime at Riverview.

“This last December … it takes about 30 days to close the books on the previous month, we’ve got 2,221 [hours], so we have reduced it by about a third, but we still have a ways to go because the numbers should not be that high at all,” he says.

Sitting in on the meeting was Westbrook Rep. Drew Gattine, a democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. He says he heard no clear answer to the questions of why the hiring process has taken so long, and why there are still vacancies at Riverview.

“They seem to be internal administrative road blocks to hiring that I have never heard before, and I don’t think have ever been presented to the Legislature before,” he says.

But Gattine says he will support any legislation needed to clear those roadblocks. And he says if pay scales are an issue, as they were a few years ago in efforts to hire psychiatrists at the hospital, he is sure that lawmakers will consider additional funding.