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Maine Loses Round in Effort to Restore Federal Funds For Riverview
01/07/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

The state of Maine faces a $20 million budget gap as of today, after an administrative law judge dismissed the state's challenge of a decision to terminate federal Medicaid funding at the Riverview Psychiatric Center. As A.J. Higgins reports, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says the state plans to appeal the judge's ruling.

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In its earlier decision to pull Medicaid funding for Riverview, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services sited safety and other compliance issues at the Augusta hospital. The state has been working to bring Riverview back into compliance and appealed the decision, but that appeal has now been dismissed.

"I'm extremely disappointed in their decision," says Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. "They are acting on a procedural basis and are ignoring the substance of our arguments."

Mayhew says the state continues to believe that CMS was wrong when it made the decision to terminate Riverview's certification last fall, and that the federal agency has failed to acknowledge the improvments that have since been made.

"We have been working for months to both address in our ongoing effort to improve the quality of services at the hospital, to ensure that it is a safe environment for our staff and for our patients," Mayhew says. "And we are committed to working collaboratively with the Legislature to continue to support Riverview as a vital service to those with mental illness."

Democratic leaders, however, point the finger at the LePage administration.

"It's been very frustrating that the governor has not been willing to move forward, and has refused to face the facts about what needs to happen at Riverview to increase patient safety and staffing levels and training there," says House Speaker Mark Eves.

Eves says that while the state continues to defend its position in a federal departmental appeals board action, the Legislature and the governor's office must work to ensure that the state is delivering quality mental health services to Mainers who require them.

"The state can appeal the decision, and we can also fix the real serious concerns that we have at Riverview," Eves says. "We can make sure that patients and staff are safe. We can increase the staffing levels there. So we need to do both. And we have an opportunity to really fix the problem here."

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette says he's prepared to work with majority Democrats to find a long-term solution to problems at Riverview, including an effort already underway to open a mental health unit at the Maine State Prison.

"I think the important piece here is that Republicans and Democrats to work together to really forge a solution to the problem that not only solves the problem for CMS, but those that work in and around - and live in and around - the community near Riverview," Fredette says.

Meanwhile, at the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Executive Director Jenna Mehnert says her organization is already dealing with the difficulties posed by the state's decision to refuse transferst o Riverview of patients beign held at county jails. The problems, she says, were made clear after one jail inmate twice tried to take his life after Christmas when available resources at a county jail were simply not adequate.

"Right now, Riverview's not open for jail transfers -- or not taking jail transfers last I checked," Mehnert says. "And so, really, we had the good fortune of another sheriff bringing over a suicide blanket instead of a suicide smock. But we need to be able to get people into the kind of services they need."

The state has 60 days to file its appeal of the law judge's dismissal of its hearing request.

Photo:  Mal Leary

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