- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - It’s been more than three months since Maine Gov. Paul LePage said his administration would move forward with building a new state psychiatric facility without legislative approval, but mental health advocates are still waiting for the Republican governor to move forward.

The secure residence would house people who’ve been through the judicial system but courts have ruled aren’t responsible for crimes because of mental illness. LePage said the residence would provide urgently needed care to individuals who no longer need hospital-level treatment, while freeing up beds at the state’s Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

LePage said in January he was “focused solely” on building the Bangor facility “as quickly as possible so those suffering from mental illness can be properly cared for.

But patients at Riverview are on “pins and needles” waiting for updates from the state, said Simonne Maline, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, a state-funded advocacy group for people with mental illness.

“This unfortunately is not an administration that works by bringing stakeholders together to develop plans for systems change,” Maline said.

Democrats blocked construction of the 21-bed building next to Riverview last year and claimed they had unanswered questions about plans for the residence. LePage said his administration would instead build the facility in Bangor to avoid legislative involvement, but said he’d answer questions at an appropriations committee hearing. He hasn’t yet done that.

In January, Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills said the project would need legislative approval no matter where it’s built. The following month, LePage’s senior policy adviser, David Sorensen, testified before lawmakers about the “highly inefficient, publicity oriented and politically charged process” of having legislators approve certain buildings in the capital city of Augusta.

The administration has been mum on plans for the residence. Meanwhile, the property is listed as off-market, according to several online real estate listings.

The governor and his administration have said a private contractor would staff and manage the new residence, but no requests for proposal have been released. The administration says existing state revenues will fund the $3.5 million facility.

LePage’s office and a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services didn’t respond to requests for comment over the course of two weeks.

Republican Sen. Roger Katz said there has been “radio silence” from the administration.

“There clearly appears to be a need for this stepdown facility, but the legislature and the administration should be working together on this,” Katz said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have introduced legislation to deal with related issues.

A Republican-led bill to keep the Legislative Council from having to approve certain construction projects in Augusta has died.

Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren is sponsoring a bill to prohibit the privatization of state correctional facilities and the state’s forensic hospitals, while Democratic Rep. Drew Gattine is working on a bill to require the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the care of forensic patients at Riverview and Dorothea Dix.

Meanwhile, Maline said that many Riverview patients who have been there for decades should receive the “right care in the right setting” in a state mental health system facing retention issues and a growing need for beds for forensic patients.

“We lose sight of that very easily when we get angry with each other and fight,” she said. “Because in the end, the patients lose. One of the forensic patients told me recently - and this helped me visualize how hard it’s been for many of them - he’s had 17 different psychiatrists in three years.”

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