April 06, 2020

Put brake on BMHI cutbacks, panel says

A slower pace for downsizing at Bangor Mental Health Institute has been recommended to state budget-makers by the Legislature’s Committee for Health and Human Services.

Led by Bangor-area representatives, who were bombarded at a recent public forum with concerns about patients being discharged with nowhere to go, the committee agreed Tuesday to push for a BMHI budget that maintains more beds and more employees than requested by the Department of Mental Health, legislators said Wednesday.

The final decision about hospital funds is in the hands of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations. Members were tentatively scheduled to discuss the state’s $8 million mental health budget today.

The budget request from Melodie Peet, mental health commissioner, reflects her plan to eliminate 62 jobs at BMHI by the end of June, while discharging 30 to 40 patients to other placements in local communities. The money saved, $858,000, would help build those community programs.

The counterproposal from the Health and Human Services Committee would allow much of the downsizing to move forward, including the removal of 44 jobs and as many as 15 patients, said Rep. Tarren Bragdon, R-Bangor, a committee member. For the immediate future, 18 jobs would be saved.

He said the committee endorsed BMHI’s longstanding plan to consolidate four wards for the elderly — now in a separate building — into two empty, recently renovated wards in the main building. As many as 15 senior citizens would be moved to nursing homes as part of the transition, said Bragdon.

Committee members drew the line, however, at the commissioner’s plan to close another 19-bed hospital ward and release a corresponding number of patients from throughout the facility, also by this summer.

“The committee recommended that the department work a little more slowly, and not put the changes into such a strict time frame,” Bragdon said.

If adopted, the compromise would put a smaller sum, $592,000, into the development of residential options outside the hospital, such as group homes and supervised apartments.

The smaller size of the relocated elderly wards would decrease facilitywide capacity from 158 to 139 beds. Peet’s original goal was 105 beds, but she recently revised her outlook to 121 beds, Bragdon said.

He said Mental Health Department representatives on hand for Tuesday’s discussion were not happy with the committee’s direction. According to Bragdon, they expressed the opinion that beds are available now for patients who would be discharged from the Bangor hospital.

Peet’s directive is based on clinical evaluations that found hospital care is not needed by 80 BMHI patients — more than half the hospital’s population. For those people, the department considers life outside a more fulfilling option, as well as less expensive.

In Bangor, some mental health experts, patients and residents have voiced concerns about the number of community beds available to absorb discharges. They have recruited legislators to the cause of slowing the downsizing.

Mental health officials did not return phone calls Wednesday. Larry Ventura, BMHI superintendent, said he was present for the meeting Tuesday in Augusta, but he declined to comment on the committee’s proposal.

Bragdon, who moderated the public forum that drew 200 people to BMHI earlier this month, said he expects legislators on the Appropriations Committee to be receptive to his committee’s suggestions.

“Our committee isn’t just made up of people from Bangor,” he said. “I think we’ve taken a thoughtful approach, and considered the community’s concerns.”

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