February 18

State panel to consider dueling plans for former mental health buildings

Four empty buildings are mired in conflicting proposals by a former judge and a state representative, and alternative plans could be considered Wednesday.

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The watchdog for the state’s mental health system will appear Wednesday before a legislative committee that’s considering the future of four empty group homes caught up in conflicting plans.

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HOUSING PROPOSALS: Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, wants to turn four former group homes into shelters for homeless veterans, but a legislative committee will consider a competing plan Wednesday that seeks to turn the buildings into transitional homes for the mentally ill.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

On Tuesday, former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Daniel Wathen said he’ll appear before the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee to discuss the future of group homes on the former Augusta Mental Health Institute campus. The homes are near the Kennebec Arsenal on the east side of Augusta.

Late last year, Wathen recommended that two of the four homes be reopened by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to house certain forensic patients, those who have been committed to Riverview Psychiatric Center by a court and have been violent or criminal.

Those four homes are part of another plan to house homeless veterans, contained in a bill submitted last year by Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta. His plan would authorize the state to sell the four homes to a nonprofit organization, probably Augusta’s Bread of Life Ministries, which runs a 12-bed veterans’ homeless shelter, the only one in Maine dedicated to veterans.

The committee hasn’t taken a stance on Wilson’s bill yet, and it was tabled last week ahead of a meeting between Wathen and DHHS staffers, at which, Wathen said, alternative plans for the buildings were discussed.

However, Wathen declined to disclose those proposals ahead of the committee meeting Wednesday, and DHHS spokesman John Martins said in an email that he had no information about the Wathen meeting. Wilson and Ericka Dodge, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats, said the department hasn’t provided them with any details of the meeting.

Wathen, who oversees a consent decree that settled a 1989 lawsuit between patients and the state that holds the mental health system to agreed-upon care standards, recommended DHHS use the two homes because of long waits for forensic patients who have been cleared to leave the hospital but must find transitional housing before entering the general community.

In December, Wathen told a legislative committee that four Riverview patients had been waiting six months for a placement after being cleared to leave the hospital. Of the center’s 92 beds, 44 are reserved for forensic patients. Wathen has said the two homes could accommodate 10 patients.

However, Wilson said the two plans don’t necessarily conflict and he understands Wathen’s desire to move some patients there. He noted that his bill authorizes the state only to sell the buildings and doesn’t mandate it. A sale could happen years down the road, when the state could arrange another transitional option for forensic patients.

“I don’t want (Wathen’s plan) to kill my bill,” Wilson said. “I want to see it pass basically as written, with some minor changes.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652 mshepherd@centralmaine.com Twitter: @mikeshepherdme
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