AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the heads of Residential and Community Support Services (RCSS) are in agreement that care at RCSS' 38 facilities was far from excellent.
What they don't agree on is who is to blame for that.
CEO of Residential and Community Support Services Christine Tiernan says her company was in compliance with DHHS' regulations and worked hard to provide good care for its 68 clients.
"We believe they are using RCSS as the scapegoat to show, 'oh hey look, we took action'," says Tiernan. She believes action was taken to deflect from systemic issue within DHHS.
She says rules and regulations set by DHHS made it difficult for her employees to balance patient care and patient rights. She says such was the case in the death of one of RCSS' clients in August-- the death that triggered DHHS to cut ties with her company.
"This man was under our care for just 72 hours. As you know, 72 hours is not a lot of time to form a relationship or trust with an individual," says Tiernan.
NEWS CENTER Maine has learned the man who died was Norman Fisher. He was being cared for at a RCSS facility on 11 Humbolt Street in Portland when he refused treatment from staff and ultimately died.
Tiernan says Fisher's legal guardian was DHHS. Therefore, her workers called the department for help. However, they were met with a reaction they did not expect.
"Instead of helping, they screamed and yelled and berated us into complete ineffectiveness," says Tiernan.
On Tuesday, DHHS released a statement which read, in part, "Although we are prohibited from releasing further details about the death, we disagree with any characterization to the contrary about the circumstances of the death and continue to prioritize the health and safety of additional residents put at risk by RCSS’ deficient care."
In the statement, the department also said it stands by its decision to cut ties with RCSS.
"We are confident in our decision to take action to protect the health and safety of adults served by Residential and Community Support Services (RCSS). The company repeatedly failed to ensure the well-being of residents and to correct deficiencies, despite being given opportunities to improve."
While DHHS points to several reasons it cut ties with RCSS, one of them being this person's death. DHHS says RCSS employees failed to give him proper treatment and also failed to call an ambulance.
RCSS director of clinical services Angie Marquis says both RCSS and DHHS are both to blame for not calling for an ambulance until after Fisher was unconscious.
Marquis says, "DHHS was on scene to assist us. They also did not call 9-1-1."
Why didn't RCSS force the man to take his medication? They say they were worried about violating his rights--RCSS says DHHS has put more emphasis on in the past few years.
Tiernan says, "We're in this catastrophe of being held liable for care while being handcuffed by rights."
Whatever happened that day, Portland Police are trying to get to the bottom of it. Police tell NEWS CENTER Maine the death is suspicious and it's being investigating.
In various statements released on Tuesday, DHHS emphasized it cut ties with RCSS not only because of the death, but because of a "pattern" of behavior.
"The Maine Department of Health and Human Services took action yesterday to protect the health and safety of adults served by Residential and Community Support Services in response to a pattern of repeated failures to ensure the wellbeing of residents and insufficient correction of deficiencies, despite being given the opportunity to do so. This includes, but is not limited to, the death in late August of an individual under state guardianship. Our first priority remains the health and safety of the residents as we assist them in transitioning to alternative housing."
Tiernan and Marquis say there was no "pattern of repeated failures." In fact, they say their company was a model.
Tiernan says "We were an entity that provided training for the other agencies, so if we are deficient, then so is everybody else!"