Try as it might, the New York State Office of Mental Health has not made a persuasive case that moving inpatient psychiatric services from its campus in Ogdensburg is a good idea.
Officials of the OMH revealed two weeks ago that adult inpatient services would be relocated from the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to the Empire Upstate Regional Office of Excellence in Syracuse beginning next year. Inpatient services for children and youths would be moved to the Empire State Regional Center of Excellence in Utica starting in 2015. The only services left at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will be its outpatient and secure sex offender treatment programs.
The announced changes are part of a three-year plan to revamp how psychiatric care is delivered. It calls for expanding community-based support services while downsizing state inpatient programs.
The OMH has tried to reassure local elected officials and residents that the 520 employees at the Ogdensburg facility will have the opportunity to continue working in the north country. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, released a letter last week from Kristin M. Woodlock, acting commissioner of the OMH, who claims that the potential loss of local jobs has been misrepresented.
But Stephen A. Madarasz, statewide director of communications for the Civil Service Employees Association, raised a valid question about the notion that a job for every St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center employee could be guaranteed. He said the number of jobs needed at the Ogdensburg facility would depend on the services it will offer. And that wont be determined until a regional task force is formed to study the issue, he said.
Mr. Madarasz said some employees may be forced to take lower-paying jobs within the OMH system or work for another state agency. The CSEA represents about 400 employees in Ogdensburg.
Preserving local jobs is crucial to the well-being of residents who work at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center and to the economic stability of the region. While OMH appears committed to helping its employees transition into new roles in the north country, questions remain about how this will be achieved.
But more important than keeping locally based jobs is ensuring that the men, women and children who depend on the services offered at the Ogdensburg facility retain access to quality and convenient mental health services. The OMH says it intends to expand community-based support services, which sounds nice. But once again, a lack of details about exactly what this means confounds the community.
Officials with the OMH must articulate how the concerns of officials and residents will be addressed. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is the only OMH psychiatric facility north of the Thruway communities, and there is no clarity on how this plan will impact people who use its services.
OMH needs to adapt its operations to the changing times, with shifting demographics and declining revenues. People in the north country deserve the best services that the OMH can deliver just as much as anyone else in the state, but there is no evidence the state has gone that course.