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A sad state for Ogdensburg

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I hate to say it, but I wasn’t really all that surprised by the news last week that the state plans to gut the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s inpatient services.

I wasn’t surprised mainly because the state Office of Mental Health signaled long before the announcement that it didn’t give a hoot about the north country. We were added as a stop on the listening tour at the last minute, and only when OMH officials were pressured to come to Ogdensburg. OMH acting Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock then told us during the session that she expected to have a plan together less than a week from then.

They already knew what they were going to do, without a care for how much it means for patients and their families to have a facility with a century-old reputation for excellence close by, staffed by dedicated people who live in our own communities. OMH might have made a show of considering the comments we made supporting the center, but I’m convinced that we were merely being humored.

The only thing our comments in support of the center might have done was prevent it from closing outright. But then again, its true fate remains to be seen.

Despite all of the unknowns, however, we can be sure of this: There won’t be 520 people working at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, and the loss of even 100 jobs will devastate our economy. I would be shocked if the number of jobs lost is that little.

We also know that those admitted for inpatient treatment will be two to three hours or more away from their family and friends, those whose support is critical to their recovery. Let’s also not forget that our already overburdened outpatient mental health system could be in an even poorer position to meet the demand for services.

I also figured the effort to save the center was doomed because during this entire process, our state lawmakers have done little more than sit on their hands. Sure, state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie sent out some postcards and posted an online petition, real feel-good stuff that she is happy to tout in every news release her office issues on the subject. Oh, and she started a Facebook page, too.

But we know how far those feel-good, play-nice tactics got us.

Since it became apparent to our newspapers that the psychiatric center was in danger, the people in a position to get us answers about how we fit into the state’s plans — namely Mrs. Ritchie and Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, but we can also include state Sens. Joseph A. Griffo and Betty Little and Assembly members Kenneth Blankenbush, Marc Butler and Janet Duprey — just threw up their hands and said they had to wait for details because OMH wasn’t talking.

Our state lawmakers — yes, the ones who go to Albany regularly and have a direct pipeline to OMH officials; the same ones who set OMH’s budget and have a say in what it does — couldn’t get any better answers than I could about what was going on. There is something really wrong with that.

Maybe I’m just naive, but I thought that was the whole purpose of electing people to represent us in Albany — so we had people in a position to inform us about circumstances that threaten us and take action to protect us.

I at one point asked why our state elected officials weren’t demanding answers about what OMH was up to, and was told that it would be unwise to do so because if we did anything to upset OMH, it could pull the plug.

Well, folks, we played nice, and they’re still pulling the plug.

We portrayed a positive message about cooperation with the state’s plans and limited our talking points to support for the center. How nice we were about it didn’t matter.

The time for niceties is long over. The gloves have to come off.

That every single one of our state lawmakers failed to get answers to what was likely to happen to the center and take proactive steps to prevent the worst makes my blood boil. They all failed miserably to do the job they were elected to do — look out for us.

None of them should be waiting for details. They should be demanding answers and working to make sure the north country is well represented on the regional center of excellence team that will be formed to figure out how the plan takes shape. Our state lawmakers should not be sitting back to see how the plan shakes out. They should be doing their damnedest to shape the plan so that our communities, our economies, our mentally ill residents and their families are not harmed.

They should be spending every waking moment working to ensure the north country’s voice is no longer ignored.

They should be doing the jobs we elected them to do.

There is some time before the state’s plan is enacted. In that time, we will see whether the people we have chosen to protect us will get to work or sit back while OMH dismantles a hospital with more than a century worth of outstanding care under its belt.

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