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EDITORIAL: Quality of mental health care in Maine doesn't depend on who is in the White House

Bangor Daily News - 3/17/2017

March 17--Blaming others -- this time the Obama administration for an imagined retaliatory scheme -- is always easier than taking responsibility for a problem and fixing it. The shortcoming of the blame game, however, is that the actual problem usually doesn't get resolved.

On Tuesday, Gov. Paul LePage said that the federal government decertified Maine's state-run psychiatric hospital in Augusta as " political retaliation" because Maine did not expand Medicaid.

The Trump administration is "looking into whether it was a political retaliation because we didn't expand Medicaid," the governor said during an appearance on WVOM radio on Tuesday. "This was a move by the Obama administration to poke us in the eye. This was nothing but a political move."

The governor has no evidence to back up this assertion. Worse, it minimizes the very real problems that were documented at Riverview Psychiatric Center. It also diminishes the very real impact these problems had on the real people who are at Riverview for mental health care.

The problems were documented by both the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the retired court justice who oversees the state's mental health system for its compliance with a court-ordered consent decree. The Maine Department of Health and Services cited these problems as well as part of its periodic reporting.

The federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services notified the state in September 2013 that it was terminating Riverview's Medicare Provider Agreement because of overcrowding, inadequate staffing and the use of methods such as handcuffs and Tasers to subdue violent patients. Without this certification, the facility has been at risk of losing federal funding.

"It was justified and needed to call attention to what was happening," said Daniel Wathen, who oversees the state's compliance with a decades-old consent decree. He has been documenting problems, and improvements, at Riverview for years -- long before the LePage administration.

In recent years, Wathen has written several reports warning of severe staff shortages at Riverview that put both patients and staff at risk. In addition, the use of mandatory overtime to compensate for a shortage of staff members diminished morale at Riverview and made it hard to recruit new staff members.

Lawmakers responded last year by approving additional funding to raise the salaries of many Riverview workers so they would be less likely to leave for other jobs.

Late last year, Wathen applauded the facility's progress on remedying staffing problems and improving patient care. He repeated that assessment to the BDN on Wednesday. "I'm still positive," he said. "Riverview basically has no staff vacancies."

Yet, an ongoing debate between the LePage administration, which has repeatedly changed its plans, and lawmakers and mental health advocates over where to build a new facility for forensic patients, those committed to Riverview by the judicial system, has clouded progress at the hospital.

LePage could have highlighted the progress made at Riverview to encourage the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services to return soon to the hospital for a follow-up visit as part of the hospital's recertification.

Instead, he painted the hospital's problems -- and progress -- as nothing more than a political charade in Washington. Later in the WVOM interview, LePage said the Trump administration will be "common-sense people and we're going to get Riverview recertified."

Riverview should be recertified because the state has resolved the problems that led to the decertification and poor patient care, not because of who is in the White House.

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(c)2017 the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine)

Visit the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) at www.bangordailynews.com

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