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Lawmakers pledge to fight state psychiatric center downsizing plan

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A state proposal to place greater emphasis on outpatient treatment for the mentally ill and reduce inpatient services has prompted fears that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg could close.

Those fears are not unrealistic, state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, said Tuesday.

While the state has not yet specified which psychiatric centers could be targeted for closure, a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to establish regional “centers of excellence” emphasizing outpatient care over more costly inpatient treatment could result in some psychiatric hospital closures.

According to information from the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, the state Office of Mental Health has proposed a central region catchment area covering services in all of Northern New York that extends to Binghamton to the south, Cayuga County to the west and Hamilton and Fulton counties to the east — placing Ogdensburg at the far north fringe of the district. Estimated savings in 2013-2014 from the initiative is $20 million.

Mr. Griffo said although the governor’s plan is still vague and will most likely not be included in either legislative chamber’s 2013-14 budget bills, it could move forward later this year.

He said a vague plan to downsize mental health facilities circulated last year before the state closed Utica Psychiatric Center in his district.

“The year before it was Oneida prison in my home city,” he said. “I believe there is legitimate concern when there are going to be closures and there is no criteria outlined for the process. I’ve unfortunately received the brunt of that twice now.”

A proposal to eliminate a requirement that the state notify facilities a year before they will close has been shot down by the Senate, Mr. Griffo said. He said in addition to pushing to preserve the 12-month notification period, the Senate is requesting that Mr. Cuomo and the state Office of Mental Health make public a list of potential closures.

“There is no official list with names of facilities, but they had said there were potentially four closures,” state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said. “The Senate pushed back on all four of them.”

She said she will not support any plan that will reduce accessibility to mental health treatment in the north country, especially if that plan includes closing the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. The center employs approximately 500 people.

“It’s important to the district not just because of the jobs, but now is not the time to be looking to close down a facility, especially when we have Fort Drum in close proximity and so many people with post-traumatic stress disorder issues,” she said. “We have to make sure we have resources that are closer than Syracuse or Binghamton.”

The governor’s proposal was not included in the Assembly’s 2013-2014 budget bill, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said.

“We are working very hard as the budget is closed out here in Albany to keep things in the mental health system as close as possible to the way they are funded now and structurally to the way they are in place now,” Mrs. Russell said. “There is such a demand for services that overhauling it would put individuals and families in jeopardy.”

She echoed Mr. Griffo’s comments that there is cause for concern about the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s potential closing.

“I’ve been hearing rumblings for months that it could happen, even before the governor’s budget came out,” she said. “It’s something we have to be very watchful for.”

Benjamin Rosen, the Office of Mental Health public information officer, did not respond to an email Tuesday seeking comment.

The Office of Mental Health next month will conduct a listening tour to gauge public input on the proposed centers of excellence. Sessions include Albany, Rockland County, Binghamton, Syracuse, Batavia, Long Island and New York.

Mr. Griffo said he will strongly urge Mr. Cuomo to make sure a north country stop is added to the tour.

“We can’t make him do it, but we can hopefully put pressure on him,” he said.

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