Maine lawmakers OK prison mental health unit bill

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill to establish a mental health unit at Maine State Prison, a move designed to help bail out a troubled psychiatric center in danger of losing more than half its operating budget next month for failing to meet certification standards.

The Democratic-controlled House approved the bill on a 112-7 vote, followed by a unanimous vote in the Democratic-led Senate, sending the measure to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who’s expected to sign it.

LePage says the bill will allow the Riverview Psychiatric Center, which houses many patients who come via court order or jail, to create a safer environment for staff by providing a space at the prison wing for patients who need to be monitored by correction officers. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has threatened to cut $20 million in Riverview funding by Sept. 2, citing concerns of overcrowding, understaffing and its use of correction officers to subdue patients with handcuffs and stun guns.

But civil rights advocates and some lawmakers have criticized the bill, saying that sending patients to a prison setting is treating mental illness as if it were a crime. Opponents also questioned whether the bill goes far enough to address the federal government’s concerns with Riverview, arguing that the $1.3 million that will be used to staff the unit would better be spent boosting staff and resources at the existing psychiatric hospital.

“We have come so far in erasing the stigma of mental illness, and now what are we doing?” said Rep. Joseph Brooks, an unenrolled member from Winterport.

The bill prohibits patients who’ve been found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity or who are determined to be incompetent to stand trial from being transferred to the prison. It also creates a committee of lawmakers who’ll oversee the new wing.

The state is waiting to see whether federal regulators approve a proposal to de-certify 20 beds at Riverview, making them ineligible for Medicaid or Medicare reimbursements, and allow it to continue using correction officers, which could save federal funding in the short term.

But supporters of the bill said that while the prison mental health unit wouldn’t end all the problems at Riverview, it would send a message to federal regulators that the state is taking significant steps to address some of the larger concerns.

Supporters argue that staff also will be better protected at Riverview, where the number of patients who physically attack staff has climbed. Several other New England states have put in place similar units at prisons, said Republican Rep. Deborah Sanderson, of Chelsea.

Democratic Rep. Mark Dion, of Portland, said that the serious problems at Riverview mean lawmakers must take steps to address the situation immediately.

“We have to start today so that something can happen tomorrow,” he said during debate on the chamber floor. “We can have a wonderful debate on the ideology of mental health treatment, but we have an emergency.”

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