AUGUSTA – In response to numerous complaints about problems at the state’s flagship psychiatric hospital, a legislative panel Tuesday asked for an independent study of staffing levels at the facility.
One lawmaker on the panel suggested some of the problems could be resolved only by privatizing the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital.
Both Democrats and Republicans on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee said they have heard from constituents and from staff at Riverview who have expressed concerns the facility does not have adequate staff for both treatment programs and security.
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said her office had spent “considerable time” responding to lawmakers’ concerns about staffing and security at Riverview. Though she believed staffing levels were adequate,
Harvey said she would support having an outside study of staffing levels at the institution conducted.
“I think it is worth the investment, since it is a nominal investment in the scheme of things,” she said. “We probably wouldn’t go down this road ourselves, but if you have concerns, we have concerns.”
Riverview, a new 100-bed facility located on the same campus as the former Augusta Mental Health Institute, replaced the Civil War-era Augusta Mental Health Institue in 2004.
The current facility remains under court oversight following a Superior Court-ordered consent agreement in 1990 that, among other things, set comprehensive goals for improving all aspects of mental health care at the hospital and in the community.
Former Maine Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen is the current court-appointed official overseeing implementation of the consent agreement, which the state has not yet fully met.
After the legislative committee’s unanimous vote to request an independent probe of staffing levels at the hospital, Wathen agreed Tuesday to fund the study.
“If I were getting the comments you folks are getting, I would probably do this on my own,” Wathen said. “But I am not getting any. I don’t want to suggest all the problems are solved, but I think staffing levels are adequate.”
Referring to DHHS’ investigations of complaints, Rep. Sarah Lewin, R-Eliot, said during Tuesday’s committee meeting: “We are deluding ourselves if we think the problem is solved. We had a not awfully scientific in-house study and people are not going to talk to someone in-house. It needs to be independent so people will not fear any retribution.”
Rep. David Webster, D-Freeport, said he is concerned that too many of the answers to staffing problems at Riverview have been “people-specific” and have not represented long-term solutions. He said an individual can leave his job and that means the solution to handling a particular patient also leaves.
“We have to look at this systematically,” he said. “We need to have the processes in place to deal with all patients, not relying on an individual staff member.”
Wathen will pick the consultant to conduct the study. He has compiled a list of out-of-state experts who are qualified to do the study and hopes to have the review done this summer. While no specific funding level was set for conducting the study, Wathen expects it will cost “a few thousand dollars.”
Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, suggested the state should consider having the state’s psychiatric hospitals run by an outside contractor, such as Eastern Maine Medical Center or Maine Medical Center. He first made the suggestion when the debate was under way over building the Riverview facility several years ago.
“I don’t believe we will ever be able to stop the naysayers or the complainers,” Martin said. “Until such time as we have the ability to have the staff that ought to be there and are not protected by a union and when they are not working properly can be fired, I don’t think we can solve the problem.”
Martin said he does not believe the study will “do any good” but that he would go along with the rest of the committee in asking Wathen to have the independent study conducted.
Sen. Richard Rosen, R-Bucksport, said Martin has raised an interesting issue that lawmakers should consider. He said there are two privately operated mental health facilities in the state now and that they both have good track records.
“This raises the broader issue we have of subjecting the private sector to one set of standards that are not applied to the facilities in the public sector,” he said. “It’s really a double standard.”
Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, who co-chairs the panel, agreed Martin’s suggestion is interesting, but does not believe the state can seriously explore the option of privatizing the operation of the mental health facilities while the mental health system is still under court oversight.
“We, as a committee, have taken a step back and looked at how we are operating the facilities,” she said. “We will continue to do the best we can to get the hospital into compliance, but I don’t think we can look at Sen. Martin’s suggestion until we achieve compliance.”
The staffing study is expected to be completed later this year so the committee can consider making recommendations to the next Legislature if the panel believes any are needed.