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North Country leaders, citizens, and patient families listen to the state's plans for its mental health hospitals. Photo: Julie Grant
North Country leaders, citizens, and patient families listen to the state's plans for its mental health hospitals. Photo: Julie Grant

St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center awaits its fate

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The state plans to decide next week which mental health hospitals it's going to close, and which will be chosen as what the state's calling "Regional Centers of Excellence." That's the word from New York's Acting Commissioner for Mental Health. Kristin Woodlock wrapped up her "listening tour" of hospitals around the state in Ogdensburg on Wednesday.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Kritin Woodlock, Acting Commissioner of the NY Office of Mental Health speaks to an audience in Ogdensburg. Photo: Julie Grant
Kritin Woodlock, Acting Commissioner of the NY Office of Mental Health speaks to an audience in Ogdensburg. Photo: Julie Grant
More than 300 people packed the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center's meeting room, as state mental health commissioner Kristin Woodlock explained that New York has too many mental health hospitals: 24, compared with eight in Texas, five in California, and four in New Jersey.

She says that's about to change.

"What I see is a smaller footprint for our hospitals. I see us having less inpatient. And I'd like to see that inpatient really make that shift, from safety net, from that asylum history we have, and sort of grow off that into best in nation care."

Woodlock says New York must move toward smaller community-based outpatient programs, and create "Regional Centers of Excellence." Even after Woodlock's 40-minute speech, it's still unclear exactly what such a center would be.

"First and foremost, whatever we come up with is going to have be good for the people that we serve and their families."

People gather at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. Photo: Julie Grant
People gather at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. Photo: Julie Grant
But there were doubts in the audience. When it was the community's turn to talk, many, like John Burke, mentioned that the next nearest mental health hospital is in Syracuse, more than 120 miles away from this impoverished, rural area. He says that's not good for patients or their families.

"To have good outcomes, you have to have families able to drive and see their loved ones."

Assembly member Addie Russell reminded the state that it snowed here just last week. She says it's already hard enough for patients to get the care they need.

"Adding over 100 miles of travel in one direction to the next closest state facility, presents not only additional financial hardship to the patient, or Medicaid transportation costs, it may not be safe or appropriate for someone to drive or ride that distance."

Russell expressed doubts that closing hospitals has anything to do with helping patient care.

"Unfortunately, knowing the current financial challenges to our state, we are concerned this consolidation is being used as a convenient claim of improved services that will ultimately result in a net reduction of services, and reduced utilization resulting from the additional barriers to obtaining treatment."

Commissioner Woodlock says this question has come up at many stops on the Office of Mental Health's listening tour of state hospitals.

"You know is this all about making the OMH budget work, about making the state budget work? and it's not. That's a piece to this..."

But Woodlock says there are bigger pieces, such as national health care reform. She says mental health coverage must shift from fee for service to managed care in the next year. Government reimbursements to hospitals will be based less on the services they provide, and more on patient outcomes.

St. Lawrence County administrator Karen St. Hilaire is among those who want the Ogdensburg hospital to get on the bandwagon.

So, the why five full days? I have to play with the cards that I have, just like all of you.
"I believe that we are ready in this region to be a part of helping you to create those centers of excellence that you want. I believe all those component parts are here. We are ready to do everything we can to strengthen those, because we believe we can be that specialized center that you want. We'd like to help you fulfill your vision."

Ogdensburg leaders talked about the huge range of services the hospital provides, for adults, children, sexual offenders, and others. Family of patients spoke about the excellence of care. Leaders from Clarkson and St. Lawrence Universities talked about the hospital's collaborations with their programs and students.

Commissioner Woodlock says Ogdensburg is the final stop on her listening tour. Now her team has until May 20 to make its decisions. Not much time.

"So, the why five full days? I have to play with the cards that I have, just like all of you."

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