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Maine Bill: Use Maine's 2nd Psychiatric Hospital to Relieve Riverview Problems
02/12/2014   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Riverview Psychiatric Center is still reeling from losing $20 million in federal funding - more than half its budget - last fall for failing to meet federal standards for care. At issue is Riverview's ability to safely care for and treat all patients, amid an increase in its forensic population - mentally ill individuals referred through the criminal justice system. The state responded by creating a new forensic unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren. But at a public hearing in Augusta today, lawmakers considered a bill that would also use Maine's other state psychiatric hospital to alleviate stress points at Riverview. Patty Wight has more.

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Maine Bill: Use Dorothea Dix to Help Riverview Listen

In all the discussion last year about how to solve issues at Riverview, such as the use of Tasers and handcuffs on patients, Democratic Rep. Aaron Frey noticed something - or rather some place - was missing from the conversation.

"Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center was not mentioned as a resource that might be utilized to manage these patients- either forensic or civil - and this puzzled me," Frey said.

Dorothea Dix in Bangor is the only other state psychiatric hospital aside from Riverview, which is located in Augusta. A major difference between them is Riverview treats both civil and forensic patients, while Dorothea Dix treats only civil. Rep. Frey wonders: Why not send forensic patients to Dorothea Dix?

"It has excellent doctors and staff. It has available space, it has a good geographical location," he said. "And importantly, it still remains - and it was at that time - certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services."

Frey is sponsor of a bill that directs the Department of Health and Human Services to send forensic patients to Dorothea Dix to relieve demand at Riverview.

Dorothea Dix Superintendent Sharon Sprague, who spoke on behalf of DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew, opposes the idea. She says at more than 100 years old, the building is not equipped for forensic patients.

"Part of the problem with Dorothea Dix is that the units are a "T" - there are corners," Sprague said. "And if you build a forensic hospital, or even a psychiatric hospital, today you would have a complete line of sight when you built a unit."

Among supporters, the bill has garnered interest, more than outright approval. Jenna Mehnert of the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness - or NAMI - says it's good to explore other aspects of Maine's mental health system to improve care at Riverview. But she says that search has to extend further than just the state's other psychiatric hospital.

"We keep talking about the challenges we have and appropriately serving individuals with mental illness. And it's Riverview, Riverview, why isn't it doing this?" Mehnert said. "But we have Dorothea Dix. And the reality is we have Dorothea Dix. We have Acadia. We have Spring Harbor. But we really need to think about the whole system and not try to band-aid it."

The need to examine Maine's mental health system as a whole is a common refrain among advocates and consumers. Mark Cadrette says he sees a psychiatrist and has been treated at both state and private hospitals. He points out what many others observe - while Maine offers a lot of mental health services, the system is fragmented.

"We all have the same thing in mind, and that's safe, quality care and effective treatment," Cadrette said. "But we haven't gotten together to figure out what that means."

And one group that needs to be a part of figuring out how to improve mental health treatment in Maine is consumers themselves, says Cathy Bustin, who has a mental illness.

"Find ways to add the voice of people who receive services, in a meaningful way, into the conversation. We can tell you what works for us and what doesn't," Bustin said.

Bill sponsor Aaron Frey says, at the very least, he hopes his bill will ensure Dorothea Dix is considered a usable asset when addressing issues at Riverview. If those who testified get their way, the bill will become a springboard to a much broader examination of Maine's entire mental health system.


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