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Janet Mills Says Plan Puts To Rest Three-Decade Mental Health Consent Decree

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Maine Gov. Janet Mills speaks at a news conference where she announced new plans for the stay-at-home order and other measures to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

State officials and advocacy groups have agreed on a plan that could end a court decree that has governed mental health services for more than three decades.

The summer of 1988 was hot and humid. Temperatures stayed in the 90s for days at a time. The Augusta Mental Health Institute, which housed hundreds of patients, had no air conditioners. Five patients died from heat exhaustion, sparking a public outcry.

The Legislature held hearings that were televised, newspaper editorials blasted state officials and advocates for patients at AMHI went to court. In 1990, the state agreed to a consent decree promising to provide needed mental health services, which is still in effect.

Gov. Janet Mills says the new plan she has agreed to will allow the state to make good on those promises within two years.

“This consent decree has gone through five governors, seven attorneys general, three or four court masters and many Superior Court judges throughout the last 31 years. It is time to put it behind us, time to make sure we are doing the right thing for mental health issues in our state,” she says.

Under the plan, the state must meet 17 performance standards in 4 of 6 quarters before the parties can ask the court to end the consent decree. In a statement, court master Dan Wathen says the plan sets forth reasonable and meaningful measures and provides the resources to meet the standards.

Mills acknowledges that there are still some gaps in the system.

“But getting people back into the community and providing community services for people who haven’t gotten into that crisis situation. These are all desperate needs and we’re addressing them as best we can and this settlement agreement does that,” she says.

The state Department of Health and Human Services still has to finish rulemaking before the new plan can be implemented.