August 20, 2013

Tasers, handcuffs cited in $20 million funding-cut threat for Riverview

Inspections at state's psychiatric hospital revealed a list of problems, but the superintendent says a plan has been submitted to solve them.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Federal regulators were horrified that corrections officers had been subduing patients at the Riverview Psychiatric Center with stun guns and handcuffs, according to newly released inspection details that threaten to spike $20 million in federal funding for the state mental hospital.

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This aerial photo taken on April 30 shows Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Federal regulators were horrified that corrections officers had been subduing patients at Riverview with stun guns and handcuffs, according to newly released inspection details.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

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Memo of federal findings during Riverview Psychiatric Center review (PDF)

The inspection said the county corrections officers used Tasers and handcuffs. Those Tasers were gone as of May 24, and the contract for Kennebec County to provide corrections officers to the hospital ended Sunday.

"We ran into some difficulties with regard to what responsibilities we were willing to take on," Chief Deputy Ryan Reardon said today. "Officers were hands-on half a dozen times a day and sometimes more to prevent patients from harming themselves, other patients and employees."

The corrections officers from the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office were brought in as a safety measure following attacks by patients on their peers and on hospital workers. Initially, county officers augmented state corrections officers, and now the responsibility for safety at Riverview has been resumed by state corrections personnel.

Security had been stepped up following a particularly vicious attack on a mental health worker March 16 by a patient, Mark P. Murphy.

But those security measures were cited top among deficiencies by state and federal regulators who inspected the state forensic hospital in unannounced visits May 810.

And if those problems at the 92-bed Riverview Psychiatric Center remain uncorrected, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has warned the hospital it could lose $20 million in federal money — more than half its operating budget — beginning Sept. 2.

Riverview Superintendent Mary Louise McEwen said today that a plan to correct the deficiencies was submitted to federal officials on Friday, and she hopes it will be accepted.

She said corrective measures began almost immediately after the visit and the report, which was sent to the hospital June 4, but there was some initial miscommunication about what federal officials wanted to see in a corrective plan.

"We understand completely what we need to do to satisfy their requirements," McEwen said.

Gov. Paul LePage blames the Democrat-controlled Legislature for failing to fund his proposal to alleviate problems at Riverview by creating a mental health ward at the Maine State Prison in Warren. He is asking lawmakers to return to work on the issue before the next session in January.

Taser problems revealed

The 88-page inspection report after inspectors visited the hospital in March and May shows where the psychiatric hospital failed to meet standards:

Failure to prevent abuse, putting patients in immediate jeopardy.

"The hospital permitted law enforcement personnel to use Tasers and handcuffs on any patient on the unit, and allowed them to intervene for any patient who they perceived as demonstrating threatening behavior," the report stated.

The hospital addressed that issue during the site visit in May, initiating education for staff and Kennebec County Sheriff's Office corrections officers, protocol clarification and hospital review of all incidents, according to the report.

One county corrections officer, interviewed by the survey team, reported threats from patients were always present in the Lower Saco Unit of the hospital, and that Tasers carried by officers act as deterrents.

"He stated that one patient who had destroyed a lot of property had stated in a joking manner that he/she would not do that any more because he/she didn't want to get 'Tasered,'" according to the report.

A psychiatrist's note from April 30 indicated that at least one patent was so agitated by the presence of corrections officers that a psychiatric emergency was declared and the patient medicated. The survey team said this could lead to the potential for violating patient rights "with care being directed by sheriff's officers rather than nursing staff."

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