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Politics

As Lawmakers Agree on Forensic Hospital Location, LePage Says He Wants It Moved

Gov. Paul LePage took to the airwaves of WGAN Thursday and announced he is giving up on a site for a new forensic hospital that was planned next to the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

The governor’s announcement came just as the two top leaders in the Legislature reached agreement on expedited hearings on the facility, which would house patients in state custody who are found “not criminally responsible” by the courts.

The governor’s change of heart was revealed during an interview with WGAN. When asked about the status of the proposal, the governor said he is looking at other potential locations outside the capitol area, because they do not require legislative approval. The site adjacent to Riverview does.

LePage said he hopes to have an alternative site picked next week. He went on to blast Democrats for blocking his efforts to build the 21-bed secure facility.

“I don’t know why they are just playing games, politics as usual, and I just can’t afford to risk the general fund money that we so badly need for other programs simply to play games,” he said.

At the heart of the issue is the Riverview Psychiatric Center itself. The LePage administration has been drawing down federal funds to help pay for Riverview. But federal regulators said use of those funds was improper because Riverview houses two distinct types of patients: those who have committed violent crimes but who have been found not criminally responsible because of mental illness, and patients committed to the facility through the courts.

Without a fix, LePage is worried the state will lose $14 million a year.

The two top leaders of the Legislature say they recognize the need for the new facility. Senate President Mike Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport, says he thinks approval of the Augusta site will happen in a matter of weeks, and that it makes no sense to change locations.

“I have a little bit of background in construction, and usually if you move a site it takes months to go through a permitting process,” he says. “Hopefully we won’t get to that point.”

Thibodeau says he and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon have agreed to have a joint hearing on the proposal by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services Committees the first week of January. He says there are members of both parties who have questions about the role of the new facility.

Gideon agrees that moving the location will increase the project’s cost and she says the state can’t afford to waste money.

“His department came in front of leg council and said if they were to move this to another location it would cost as much as a million additional dollars in taxpayer funds. Additionally, I have no idea how much time it would take to revise plans, go through the planning board process.”

Gideon says she does not understand why LePage insists she is trying to “reopen the whole thing.” She says all she wants to do is ensure proper legislative oversight over state spending.

Riverview lost its federal certification in 2013 after regulators uncovered problems ranging from improper record-keeping to the use of handcuffs on patients. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also found that Riverview was improperly housing patients who needed intense hospital treatment with those who no longer needed that level of care.