Privatization concerns at heart of Riverview controversy

Privatization concerns at heart of Riverview controversy

A spate of recent headlines about the LePage administration’s effort to build a new facility at the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta have focused on the political nature of the debate, but have largely ignored one of the biggest policy reasons behind the disagreement between Democrats and Republicans: privatization.

The Health and Human Services Department has proposed building a 21 bed facility for patients at Riverview who no longer need hospital level of care, but are also not yet ready to be out in the community. This facility is proposed to be for forensic patients only, meaning patients who have come through the criminal justice system. Most have been found not criminally responsible for their actions because of their mental health diagnosis.

The legislature will hold hearings on the proposal today, despite Gov. Paul LePage’s attempts to circumvent legislative oversight.

While there is broad agreement from legislators of both parties that it’s a good idea to expand capacity and address the waiting list for patients in need of care, there are significant concerns over LePage’s plans to privatize the facility and the fact that a for-profit, private prison corporation, Correct Care Solutions, is standing by to bid to run the installation.

“There are still many questions: It’s no secret that rumors are swirling about privatization, but we still don’t know one way or the other whether that’s part of the governor’s plan. If it is, what would that privatization look like for patients? Who would be entrusted with their care? What factors will be considered before a contract is handed out? Would the state realize any savings, or would it simply outsource state funds to a private corporation without any benefit to taxpayers?” said Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson in a December statement. “No one disagrees about the need for this facility. But taxpayers deserve to know that its construction and operation have been vetted.”

Correct Care Solutions is an off-shoot of the Geo Group, the nation’s second largest private prison corporation. With dwindling opportunities to expand because of a national movement against privatized prisons, companies like Geo see a market opportunity in state mental health facilities. National watchdog groups have dubbed it the “Treatment Industrial Complex.”

The lobbyist for Correct Care Solutions in Maine is Holly Lusk, who until recently served in the Governor’s Office as a Senior Health Policy Advisor to LePage.

LePage has threatened to move the building out of Augusta and out of the oversight of Legislative Council in order to break ground more quickly, denying the legislature the ability to ask questions about the facility’s construction and management.

“What do they not want the public to know? Is it that, if run by a for profit corporation, this private company is incentivized to keep people institutionalized rather than rehabilitate them to re-enter their communities? That, with a profit motive, they are going to do everything they can to keep their beds full? Do they not want us to look into Correct Care’s record in other states, where patient death rates have increase, and where families have been denied access to their loved ones medical records after their deaths?” said Sarah Bigney of the Maine AFL-CIO, a union that represents staff at Riverview. “Or is it that workers’ wages and benefits are always the first ‘savings’ under privatization?”

Illustration via Truthout

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