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More than 40 speak in opposition to OMH plan for St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center at Ogdensburg public hearing

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OGDENSBURG — State lawmakers listened to the testimony of more than 40 people at a daylong hearing Tuesday, nearly all of them speaking out against the plan to close inpatient services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

Sens. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, Elizabeth O’C. Little, R-Queensbury, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, were joined by Assembly members Aileen Gunther, D-Forestburgh, Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, to hear the testimony submitted by a range of community members with ties to the psychiatric center. The meeting at Ogdensburg City Hall lasted from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Andrea Smyth, executive director of the New York State Coalition for Children’s Mental Health Services, spoke in favor of the plan by the state Office of Mental Health to relocate child inpatient care to Utica and adult care to Syracuse, citing the possibility for private outpatient clinics to fill in the gap. The rest of the speakers, however, were uniform in their opposition.

Mrs. Little said the plan amounts to “geographic discrimination.”

“To say that we won’t have a center of excellence here is mind-boggling,” she said. The OMH plan would consolidate some services in what it calls regional centers of excellence, and Ogdensburg will not be such a center under the plan.

Mrs. Gunther said it’s clear that the center is crucial to the region. “We’re going to work very hard” to save the services here, she said.

Patrick J. Kelly, CEO of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency and a member of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force, said the proposal will rob the north country of much needed mental health services.

“The north country region will see a drastic reduction in available care,” he said.

Mr. Kelly noted that the plan, which would require families drive to either Utica or Syracuse to visit their loved ones who need mental health treatment, would place “undue hardship” on them. When Mr. Kelly asked OMH about the transportation cost for families who do make the trip, he was told there may be discounted hotel rooms available to them.

“We have families who can’t afford to feed their children. To suggest that discounted hotel vouchers is the solution is embarrassing,” Mr. Kelly said.

Barbara Briggs Ward, mother of a son with paranoid schizophrenia who has been helped by the psychiatric center, said the proposal by OMH to transport people to Utica or Syracuse is unconscionable.

“It is cruel to even suggest they will be shipped away like cattle,” she said.

When her son was a patient at the psychiatric center in his early teenage years, Mrs. Ward said, she would visit him daily. “I was part of his recovery.”

“How will people manage [to visit] if it’s even further away?” Mrs. Ward said.

Dr. Laurie J. Zweifel, a licensed psychologist with youth services at the psychiatric center, said, “Having access to care for north country residents is very important, as there is much poverty and limited transportation.”

Under the current proposal there is not enough planning around transportation, Mrs. Zweifel said.

And county Sheriff Kevin M. Wells noted that because the increased distance could also make people less willing to seek hospitalization, the local jails will probably pick up the slack.

On Tuesday, Mr. Wells said the county correctional facility had 172 people in it, with 55 people “being treated for mental illness for various levels.”

St. Lawrence County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said the number of people in jail dealing with psychiatric issues is already too high. “They should be in the psych center,” she said.

And Mr. Wells was also shocked by another part of the OMH proposal where Skype was suggested as an alternative to actual visits with family members.

Mr. Wells noted that even prisoners are given a choice whether to be arraigned in person or via a webcam session with a judge; yet psychiatric patients and their families will receive no such option.

That sentiment was echoed by several other speakers including County Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, the father of a son with autism.

“Video conferencing will never take the place of a parent’s hug or the soft touch of a sister or brother,” Mr. Burns said.

Mrs. Ward said that nothing can replace a physical visit. “Take it from me as a mother who has had a child locked up in an inpatient center: nothing can replace a loving hug.”

Jim Scordo, executive director of the Credo Community Center in Watertown, said relocating inpatient services would do a lot of harm to the north country.

“We need services in the north country,” he said. “If we move everything as planned, that will essentially cut off the north country. That’s a barrier for care. Take your time and do this right.”

The state Senate website will have a video of the entire hearing online soon.

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