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St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s fate could be known by Monday

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OGDENSBURG — The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s fate could be known as soon as Monday.

Acting state Office of Mental Health Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock told more than 300 people gathered Wednesday at the psychiatric center’s Unity Center that she hopes to have a plan in place by then to develop regional centers of excellence. The centers will deliver mental health services that rely more on community support and less on inpatient treatment.

“Whatever we come up with has to be good for the people we serve and their families,” Mrs. Woodlock said.

She said if the time frame seems rushed, that’s because it is. OMH is under pressure to revamp its antiquated mental health system before a shift to managed care next year and health coverage changes take effect under the federal Affordable Care Act. She said the state also has to comply with a 12-month notification period for any hospitals slated for closure.

The state also has a relatively poor track record in complying with the Olmstead Decision, which requires that mental health patients get to live in the most integrated community setting they choose, she said. Mrs. Woodlock said the state still relies too heavily on inpatient care and needs to put more emphasis on helping people sustain themselves in the community by providing better education, housing and employment supports.

“We want to help people get better,” Mrs. Woodlock said.

The idea behind regional centers of excellence is to provide patients with the community support they need and better coordinate mental health care with medical care. Centers will partner with higher learning institutions and hospitals that can bring mental health treatment methods up to the same standard that medical treatments are expected to meet and bring cutting-edge advances to the state’s mental health system.

“I see a smaller footprint for our hospitals,” she said. “We will shift away from asylum care and move toward best-in-nation care.”

Many community leaders and residents who spoke at Wednesday’s state listening-tour stop said the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center already is conforming to the state’s vision for the future. The vast majority of speakers urged the state to designate the facility a regional center of excellence.

“The local communities and a multitude of support agencies have collaborated on a continuum of care,” Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson said. “We are a regional center of excellence and a beacon of hope throughout the region.”

“Today you will hear how important this hospital is to our economy,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “You will hear about the quality of care here and why the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is already considered among the best.”

Mrs. Ritchie’s office collected more than 2,100 signatures on an online petition seeking to save the facility from closure. She said many of those who signed were from other states.

“This community supports St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center,” she said. “Let there be no doubt.”

Speakers also noted the facility’s geographic isolation and the difficulty travel would pose for family members of patients who would have to seek treatment elsewhere if the hospital were to close.

“We are 129 miles from the nearest OMH hospital,” said Patrick J. Kelly, CEO of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency, speaking for a task force of community leaders lobbying to support the psychiatric center. “For the others throughout the state, the average distance is 32 miles.”

He said that in researching the services the facility provides, he was surprised at the broad range of community-based options for patients.

He also said the hospital’s proximity to higher learning institutions with psychology, nursing and other medical-related programs is a perfect fit for the university collaboration the state seeks.

“The building blocks are here,” Mr. Kelly said. “Most important is the excitement and interest we have to support this facility and work with it as it tries to evolve. We see this facility as an important piece of our community landscape.”

The state also cannot lose sight of the economic impact closing the psychiatric center would have on an already struggling community, said businessman Lynn L. Blevins, Ogdensburg. He said the state could be in a position to provide more jobs in the community by expanding what the facility can offer.

“It would be irresponsible to close a hospital in an area with a huge unemployment problem,” Mr. Blevins said.

The center employs 520 people and serves an inpatient population of roughly 180. Its outpatient programs serve about 1,600 people.

“Services must remain in the north country,” said National Alliance for the Mentally Ill St. Lawrence Valley Chapter President Lynne H. Matott, Gouverneur. “Families should not have to travel more than an hour to see their loved ones.”

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