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Politics

Maine AG: Governor Needs Lawmakers' Approval to Build Psych Unit

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills
File photo (Maine Public/AJ Higgins)
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Maine Attorney General Janet Mills

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills and Governor Paul LePage are at odds again. This time it is over the Governor’s plan to build a new secure mental health facility, and whether LePage needs permission from the Legislature.

Riverview Psychiatric hospital in Augusta
Credit File (Maine Public/Mal Leary)
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Riverview Psychiatric hospital in Augusta

Mills says LePage needs legislative approval to build the unit, wherever it is located in Augusta, its original site, or in alternative site in Bangor being pushed by LePage. Mills says that assessment, requested by two state lawmakers, is not a formal legal opinion, but she says the law is clear: that construction of a new facility requires legislative approval. That led to some confusion for members of two legislative committees who are considering a plan to build the facility adjacent to the Riverview Psychiatric hospital in Augusta. Rep. Brain Hubbell, a democrat from Bar Harbor, summed up the feeling of the Appropriations Committee.

“We did not actually have the opportunity to review a proposal, a specific proposal,” says Hubbell. “But we recognize the need for a facility.”

The panel voted unanimously to recommend that the legislative council approve the Augusta plan. But, the Governor says he now believes Bangor is a better location for the $3.5 million, 22 bed facility. In a letter to lawmakers, he says he is willing to meet with Appropriations and the Health and Human Services Committee to explain why he thinks Bangor is a better location. LePage also makes it clear that he plans to go forward and believes he has the authority to do so, without legislative approval. Freshman Rep. Dale Denno, a Democrat from Cumberland on the HHS committee, wanted a broader discussion of the issue, but was told that the discussion was limited to whether to recommend approval of the Augusta location, should the Governor change his mind.

“There are some significant questions about Bangor, there are some significant questions about program,” Denno says. “Those are not on the table, as I understand it? That’s right.”

The Governor, through his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, says he is going forward with building the unit in Bangor regardless of the letter from Mills, and says he has formally withdrawn the Augusta proposal. GOP Senator Roger Katz of Augusta says the project would already be under construction if the Governor had cooperated with lawmakers.

“We all agree we need this facility,” says Katz. “I think if we had been more collaborative and the administration had been willing to share its thoughts with us, the foundation would be in the ground and the walls up on this thing by now. And it’s too bad that it’s not.”

That prompted a sharp retort from Bennett who pointed the blame at the legislative branch for failing to provide the proper level of care to patients.

“It would have been faster if the legislative council had approved it the first time around instead of playing political games and the Governor is done with the political gamesmanship and he wants to move forward on this because the patients are the priority on this, bottom line,” she says.

While the political wrangling continues, there are some serious issues still unresolved. Riverview lost about $20 million a year in federal funding starting in 2013 because federal officials determined the hospital was improperly housing patients who needed intense hospital treatment alongside those who no longer required that kind of care. It is those latter patients that would be housed in this new so-called step down unit. If the issues aren’t resolved through discussions, it’s likely that the matter will end up in court and construction of the new facility will be delayed even longer.