- Associated Press - Friday, January 22, 2016

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - Administrators of the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta have told state lawmakers that they are trying address chronic staffing shortages, but cannot find enough qualified workers.

Hospital Superintendent Jay Harper told the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee on Friday that the biggest challenge in improving staff levels is getting people with the appropriate training.

“We don’t have enough of the right people,” he said.

The state-funded hospital now has 51 vacancies, 47 of which involve direct patient care, according to Daniel Wathen, who oversees a consent decree governing how the state must treat those with mental illness. The hospital is operating with a third of its nursing positions unfilled, he said.

The 92-bed hospital lost federal certification in 2013 and Wathen cited staff shortages as a roadblock in the hospital’s efforts to regain that certification.

“Their initiative is good, but the staffing level is killing their initiative,” he said.

Some lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration with the hospital’s challenges and lack of progress.

“What’s the plan? Do you have a long-term plan,” Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio (D-Sanford), asked Harper and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew. “It’s a crisis now. A staffing crisis.”

Mayhew said the hospital has aggressively increased recruiting efforts but faces competition with other hospitals in the region. Allowing employees to work three 12-hour shifts and receive full benefits would help attract and retain staff, she said.

Wathen said there are not enough psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in New England to meet the demand.

To deal with the staff shortage, the hospital has forced employees to work overtime shifts. Hospital employees previously testified that mandated overtime is crushing morale. A union official representing mental health workers said employees are required to work 18,000 to 24,000 hours of overtime annually.

Riverview lost its certification for a several reasons, including for incidents when sheriff’s deputies used stun guns and handcuffs on patients. The hospital lost eligibility for federal reimbursement of about $20 million annually.

Harper told the committee that staff injuries have dropped from at least 20 per month a year ago to nine or fewer per month today.

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