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Politics

Lawmakers, Advocates Continue to Press DHHS for Details on Riverview Forensic Unit

Members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee are raising questions about the LePage administration’s plan, announced earlier this year, to build a 21-bed forensic facility near the existing Riverview Psychiatric Center. Lawmakers want answers the administration is not providing.

Ever since the Department of Health and Human Services announced it was seeking bids to build and operate a facility to house forensic patients who don’t require hospitalization, the proposal has been met with skepticism.

The agency hoped to break ground on the building this fall, but the Augusta Planning Board tabled action on the request. The board wanted more information about who would be housed there and how it would be paid for.

DHHS has indicated the new building would cost between $3 million and $5 million, and would be operated within current appropriations when it opens sometime next year. But many of the details are unknown, says Jenna Mehnert of NAMI Maine, a group that advocates for the mentally ill.

“It’s not a judge determining that the person is ready to step down to a lower level of care, it’s Riverview determining, and that is concerning to us,” she says. “And, again, what will be the admission criteria.”

Mehnert says NAMI has tried to meet with DHHS officials to discuss how the new facility would work, but a scheduled meeting was canceled. Sen. Roger Katz, a Republican from Augusta, says efforts by lawmakers and Augusta officials to meet with DHHS have also not been successful.

“Those of us in the Augusta delegation have tried to meet with folks from the administration to be briefed on this and talk about many of the issues you have been raising, as well as the mayor and city manager. And those suggestions that we get together have been declined, several times now,” he says.

The administration’s plan for Riverview is aimed at regaining federal certification. In 2013 it failed inspections after federal officials criticized the way forensic patients were being kept in a hospital setting when they did not need that level of care. Inadequate staffing was also an issue.

The bottom line is the state lost about $20 million a year in federal funds for Riverview.

Lawmakers are also baffled as to why the administration is proceeding without the Legislature weighing in, since future funding for the facility will need legislative approval.

Portland Rep. Erik Jorgensen, a Democrat, asked the longest serving member of the Legislature, Rep. John Martin of Eagle Lake, whether there was precedent for building a new state facility without discussion in the Legislature.

“I’ve never seen it,” says Martin, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1964.

The proposal is currently awaiting action by the city of Augusta for the needed permits, and planning board members seemed reluctant at their meeting earlier this month to even take a vote without someone from DHHS coming before them to answer their questions.

In an email, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards reiterated the agency’s position that it does have the authority to proceed with building the facility and that operational costs are within existing budgeted funds.