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  • Bill to protect patients transferred from Riverview Mental Hospital clear hurdle in Maine House

    Ramona du Houx

    Measure ensures transfers are only to facilities that provide appropriate levels of care

    The Maine State House of Repersentatives on April 5, 2016 gave its initial approval to a bill ensuring that people with mental illness who require hospital care will continue to have that care in an appropriate setting if transferred from Riverview Psychiatric Recovery Center. The vote was 81-66.

    As amended, LD 1577 requires patients needing hospital-level care who are determined incompetent to stand trial or not criminally responsible to be cared for in facilities that have been accredited to provide hospital level of care by the Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit organization that accredits and certifies more than 21,000 health care organizations and programs.

    “We agree with the governor that patients from Riverview need quality health care in a facility that provides hospital level of care,” said Rep. Patty Hymanson, D-York, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. “Noncriminal patients do not belong in a prison but in a hospital where treatment is the priority.”

    The measure requires the Department of Health and Human Services to place patients in state-owned hospitals that provide the appropriate level of care. If that is not possible, the next choice would be another accredited hospital in Maine. Barring that, patients could be sent to an accredited hospital out of state.

    The measure also requires DHHS to develop a plan for noncriminal patients who no longer need hospital-level care but do need to be at a secure facility. The department would be required to report every 90 days to the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on its progress on the plan and the status of transferred patients.

    LD 1577 is a bill from Gov. Paul LePage. The original measure, now the minority report,

    proposed fixing the problems at Riverview by criminalizing mental illness and sending hospital patients to the Intensive Mental Health Unit, or IMHU, at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

    Last month, Dr. James Fine, the psychiatrist at the IMHU, told the committee that the

    unit is nothing like a hospital in that it is focused on behavior control and security. He also said that the intensive mental health unit can be dangerous, with a recent rape reported within the unit and potentially fatal fights.

    According to Fine and the Department of Corrections, if Riverview patients were brought to the IMHU, they would be kept in a unit that serves primarily inmates with a history of violent crime such as murder and rape. They would spend periods of the day subject to lockdown, have regular interactions with prison guards, be shackled during movement and be subject to other protocols meant to handle inmates at a maximum-security prison. Behavioral problems would be addressed with Tasers, pepper spray and other interventions typical of corrections facilities. The committee heard a graphic description of how inmates at the IMHU are sometimes forcibly “extracted” from their cells.

    During his appearance before the committee last month, LePage said that when he proposed the bill he believed that the IMHU provided the same level of care as a hospital. When he learned he was mistaken, he said that it ought to.