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State plan guts St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center inpatient services; full impact on jobs, services unclear

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Local and state officials say they are preparing to fight to maintain jobs and services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center following an announcement Wednesday that its inpatient services will be moved to other facilities by 2015.

Under a three-year plan by the state Office of Mental Health to revamp how psychiatric care is delivered, the psychiatric center’s adult inpatient services will be moved to the Empire Upstate Regional Center of Excellence, Syracuse, starting next year. Children and youth services will be moved to the Empire State Regional Center of Excellence in Utica starting in 2015.

The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will maintain its secure sex offender treatment program.

OMH spokesman Benjamin Rosen said the psychiatric center’s patient census as of Tuesday was 68 adults, nine children and 90 sex offenders. He said most of the adults and children, excluding sex offenders, will be moved into community care by the time inpatient services are ended. He did not say what would happen to any patients admitted under inpatient care in the meantime.

“It’s OMH’s intention that nearly all individuals currently receiving inpatient care can successfully transition to community-based care with appropriate supports,” he said in an emailed response to questions.

The plan calls for an expansion of community-based services at Ogdensburg, which will be designated a community service hub. Mr. Rosen said what community services will be offered remain to be seen, and will be based on recommendations by a regional center of excellence team yet to be formed. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will be part of the Central New York Region.

STAFFING LEVELS

OMH said in its Wednesday news release that the plan will provide for continuity of employment for OMH workers, but it was unclear what staffing level the Ogdensburg facility will maintain. The center employs 520 people.

Some positions associated with inpatient care will be shifted to community care positions. Inpatient positions that are maintained will be transferred to facilities that offer inpatient services. Employees also will be given the opportunity to transfer to vacant positions within the OMH system or to other state agencies with appropriate training.

Civil Service Employees Association spokesman Stephen A. Madarasz, Albany, said the plan’s lack of detail for what the future holds for employees is troubling.

“They make allusions to retraining people and moving them into community services, but without specifics, it’s impossible to be able to really assess what the impact will be for jobs, people, quality of services and availability of services,” he said. “Right now there are inadequate services in communities, and there is no indication of how this will improve services.”

The realignment of services throughout the state could mean that employees will have to take positions elsewhere to maintain employment, he said. Mr. Madarasz said some facilities, including Ogdensburg, will be designated as regional hubs for community services, but OMH has not said what that means.

“If you have 100 people at a facility now, and those jobs get reduced to 12 in the regional hub, that’s a lot of jobs that have gone elsewhere,” he said. “What does that mean for the rest of the employees? Do they have to take a job in Syracuse or somewhere else?”

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said the north country’s state lawmakers will need to work hard to mitigate job losses in Ogdensburg.

“There are jobs not directly related to treatment that I’m very concerned about,” she said. “That’s why I will be advocating vigorously to try to retain the services that are currently at the psychiatric center.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said although the plan is being billed as a no-layoff plan, it’s likely that staffing levels in Ogdensburg will be affected.

“We’re waiting for the details and some reassurance that there won’t be any job losses,” she said. “That’s going to come out in the details of the plan, but the conversation I had was that maybe the jobs would be realigned a little differently so that if you were a maintenance worker at the psych center, for instance, you could be a maintenance worker at one of the community homes. But that’s really at the crux of the issue. We need more details to know what it means to be a community-based hub.”

IMPACT ON FAMILIES

Mrs. Russell said she worries about how moving inpatient services will affect families who will have to travel long distances to see loved ones, as well as what effect being far from home will have on patients.

“These few regional centers of excellence across the middle of the state are not sufficiently close to the populations that need them,” she said. “We should be maintaining the service levels there, if not expanding them.”

“We heard from a lot of people who had family members who were treated at the psych center and talked about how important being close to them was to their recovery,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “Being over two hours away is a real concern. If you’re in Franklin County, you have to tack another hour onto that.”

Asked whether any accommodations could be made for families for whom traveling to see loved ones in inpatient care would be a hardship, Mr. Rosen said the regional center of excellence team could recommend “hospitality housing, discounted hotel arrangements, and web-based video conferencing.”

PREPARED FOR BATTLE

The head of a task force that has been working to maintain the psychiatric center and secure a designation as a regional center of excellence said the group’s members aren’t taking the news lying down.

“It’s not a win situation,” St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force Chairman Charles W. Kelly said. “They’re talking about expanding community care, which is wonderful, but that’s something they should have done 50 years ago, that they said they were going to do 50 years ago, and didn’t. The question is whether they will do it now.”

Mr. Kelly said the task force has requested a meeting with acting OMH Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock, and will meet this morning to figure out its next steps.

“We’re going to fight,” he said. “The win is they didn’t close the whole thing down. The loss is that they didn’t make us a regional center of excellence, and they should have.”

Mrs. Russell said the state has two more budget cycles before inpatient services are scheduled to move out of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, which will hopefully give lawmakers enough time to undo potential job losses and service reductions.

She said money could be diverted directly to the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to preserve its services.

“There is time to try to make revisions to the plan,” she said. “OMH is making an assumption that the eastern side of the region is going to want to seek services in the capital district. I’m not sure that people who have been in a facility for an extended period of time are going to want to make that change.”

Mrs. Ritchie said the state Legislature’s biggest role could be in making sure money saved from a reduction in inpatient services is funneled directly to community-based care rather than spent elsewhere.

“There is always that option, depending on how this plan unfolds and what it means to the community and those receiving care,” she said. “I will do absolutely everything I can to protect the jobs and services in the area.”

Mr. Kelly said he is skeptical about the Legislature’s ability to turn the situation around. He said he has been disappointed at a lackluster response from state lawmakers to prevent the potentially disastrous impact the OMH plan holds for patients, their families and the region’s economy.

“To Senator Ritchie’s credit, she has worked with us and supported us, but the main work in this thing has come from the task force,” he said. “Frankly, I’m disappointed in where we are. I think we should have been treated better than this.”

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