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People gathered in Ogdensburg City Hall for the hearing. Photo: Sarah Harris
People gathered in Ogdensburg City Hall for the hearing. Photo: Sarah Harris

Ogdensburg says keep inpatient services at SLPC

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New York's Office of Mental Health hopes to consolidate the state's 24 inpatient hospitals into 15 regional facilities called "centers of excellence."

But the plan has been met with strong resistance in Ogdensburg, where the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center has been a major presence for over 100 years.

Yesterday the legislature held a hearing to see how the plan would impact Ogdensburg. Practically everyone who testified said getting rid of inpatient services is a bad idea.

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Sam Burns testifies. Photo: Sarah Harris

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

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Ogdensburg City Hall was packed yesterday. Doctors, social workers, nonprofit leaders, and patients all testified about the state’s plan to close inpatient beds  at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

Sam Burns is a county legislator who lives in Ogdensburg. For him, the plan to close inpatient services at the psychiatric center hits clos e to home. When Burns stood to testify about his family, a hush fell over the room.

"My wife and I have an autistic son," Burns said. "We are thankful that other disorders have not surfaced. But the possibility is always there."

Outside in the hallway, Burns elaborates. "We’ve been lucky he hasn’t had an issue," Burns says, tearing up.

"But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the future. With this plan it just wouldn’t work out, for him. It just wouldn’t."

One of the biggest concerns people mentioned over and over again is the distance that North Country patients, especially children, would have to travel for mental health services.

Under the new plan, adult patients would have to go Syracuse, and children would be treated in Utica.

"It’ll be really difficult for my patients and families to travel, said Andrea Randle, a social worker  with the children’s program at the psychiatric center for 11 years. She says many of her patients’ parents don’t have the time or money to travel long distances for their children’s care.  

"I’ve had parents ask me ‘oh my goodness are you really going close, what’s going to happen, what if my child has to be hospitalized next year and you’re not here, what will happen?’ So I think it’s scary to a lot of people that we could potentially close the inpatient units."

State officials say that New York’s mental health system is just too big. They say resources currently spent on maintaining hospital infrastructure should go towards building better outpatient services.

But inpatient care has played a huge role in Michael Spellman’s life. Spellman lives in Ogdensburg. He just spent 3 weeks in the psychiatric center’s inpatient unit, where he’s been seeking treatment for substance abuse since 1981.

"We have therapists that we’ve always worked with and are familiar with. I’m worried that if I was to travel to Syracuse get discharged there, would I be able to get these services? Is there a waitlist in such a big area? Would I be able to get a ride back to Ogdensburg or would I be discharged in the streets of Syracuse. These things concern me and my fellow patients," Spellman said. 

The hearing stretched on late into the afternoon. The crowd slowly dwindled as people ducked out to return to work. 

Randy Thompson McNeill had come to hear her step-daughter, Andrea Randle, testify. Thompson McNeill is retired and lives in Lisbon. But for years, she worked as a psychiatric nurse in Ottawa.

"I strongly believe that all patients need to be treated in their community and where there support services are. To have to go miles away, I don’t think people would be getting the care that they need."

The legislature is holding similar hearings in other communities affected by the plan. They say they may use the findings to change the plan when they return to Albany next year.  

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