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Task force to state: Amend psych center plan

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OGDENSBURG — The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force is not giving up the fight to keep jobs and services here by having the facility designated as a regional center of excellence.

In a statement issued Thursday, task force members urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and acting Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock of the state Office of Mental Health to amend the plan to include the Ogdensburg center as a “northern center of excellence, and in doing so preserve three inpatient adult wards as well as three inpatient children and youth service wards at the center.”

“Quite frankly, we are hoping that they will listen to reason,” task force Chairman Charles W. Kelly said.

OMH on Wednesday issued a plan that strips the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center of inpatient services for adults and children, sending those services to facilities in Syracuse and Utica, respectively. Under the plan, inpatient services will be moved out of the center starting next year, and the transition will be complete by 2016.

Mr. Kelly said it’s unconscionable for the state to suggest that patients seek treatment three hours away from their homes and force their loved ones to travel that far to be near them.

“We know what a ride to Syracuse can be like. The governor probably flies over the snowstorms to get here,” he said. “I don’t know where the commissioner’s from, but maybe she’s from sunny Florida. It’s just not reasonable.”

The plan proposes expanding community-based mental health services and making Ogdensburg a community service hub, but it remains to be seen what services will be offered.

It’s also unclear how many of the center’s 520 employees will remain in Ogdensburg, as the plan allows for employees at facilities losing inpatient services to transfer to other vacancies within the OMH system or to other state agencies.

Mr. Kelly said the task force’s request for the psychiatric center to become a northern center of excellence is the first volley in what likely will be a long, difficult fight to preserve jobs and services at the center.

In its statement, the task force said it was “surprised and disappointed” by the proposed removal of inpatient services from the Ogdensburg psychiatric hospital.

“This region, with its long history providing quality services for the mentally ill, had the most to lose in this process, and though it was the most vocal and consistent in its support for its center, still lost the most,” the statement said.

The task force asked Mr. Cuomo and OMH to consider the north country’s geographic isolation and the burden traveling for inpatient treatment will place on patients and their families.

“As a result of the acting commissioner’s proposal, residents and families in the north country will be forced to travel to facilities which in many cases are well over 100 miles from their home communities,” the statement said. “The offered solution of ‘hospitality housing, discounted hotel arrangements and web-based video conferencing’ offered by OMH spokesman Benjamin Rosen highlights the lack of detail and planning for services for those who are going to be most negatively impacted by the OMH proposal.”

The task force also called for the preservation of staffing levels in Ogdensburg, fearing that many employees will be transferred to positions elsewhere in the state. It called on OMH to consider the breadth and depth of services the psychiatric center already provides, including alcohol and substance abuse treatment and children’s services, its effective role in serving a rural population, its existing partnerships with community-based mental health organizations, its strong relationships with nearby hospitals and universities and the support it enjoys from communities throughout the region.

“Over 70 letters and resolutions of support were provided for the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center from communities, colleges and school districts, churches, development organizations, elected officials, hospitals, businesses and local residents throughout the north country,” the statement said. “Each day more letters and resolutions continue to arrive in support of the facility.”

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