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Ogdensburg City hall with a clear message. Photo: David Sommerstein
Ogdensburg City hall with a clear message. Photo: David Sommerstein

Task force presses Cuomo to rethink Ogdensburg Psych cuts

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Today, a couple dozen North Country leaders packed in vans headed to Albany. It's their big chance to meet with Governor Cuomo's staff about the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. They're making the case the state should invest in the mental health hospital in Ogdensburg, not shut it down. David Sommerstein reports.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

This story has been corrected with new reporting. An earlier version incorrectly characterized the Office of Mental Health's plan for workers displaced by eliminating inpatient services at SLPC.

Cora Lee Barrett folds benefit t-shirts for the cause. Photo: David Sommerstein
Cora Lee Barrett folds benefit t-shirts for the cause. Photo: David Sommerstein
Last week in Ogdensburg City Hall, secretary Cora Lee Barrett was folding piles of neon green t-shirts. They read Save SLPC – save the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

BARRETT: Nice bright green…that we are selling to help fund our efforts to save the psych center.

10 dollars a shirt. They’ve sold more than a thousand already, to help pay for Save SLPC lawn signs you see everywhere. And to send the task force to Albany today.

Psych Center boosters have been waiting for this audience with the Governor for months, ever since the Office of Mental Health released a plan to consolidate its hospitals.

Task force chairman and legendary retired Ogdensburg Journal publisher Chuck Kelly flips through a thick hard-cover briefing folder. They’re bringing stacks of them for lawmakers.

DAVID: A couple hundred pages there. KELLY: Oh, there’s no question about that. No question.

What is the question, Kelly says, is how the state could move all inpatient services to Syracuse and Utica, as is called for under the consolidation plan.

Kelly says North Country patients and their families would have to travel hundreds of miles.

KELLY: Say there’s five kids in a family. One kid’s sick. He’s down in Utica, or she is. How often is the family going to get to see him? Every professional I talk to says family ties are very important to cure.

The reorganization could also endanger about 500 jobs in Ogdensburg. Kelly says his message to Governor Cuomo today is clear – even though Cuomo himself isn’t scheduled to be there.

Task force chairman Chuck Kelly says without the Psych Center, there'd be no mental health hospital north of Syracuse. Photo: David Sommerstein
Task force chairman Chuck Kelly says without the Psych Center, there'd be no mental health hospital north of Syracuse. Photo: David Sommerstein
KELLY: We need to make sure that these people are taken care of and that Ogdensburg doesn’t lose another industry. This is an industry in Ogdensburg, simply put.

According to an Office of Mental Health letter from last summer, all of those people would still have jobs in the North Country "if they choose". Half of them would retain their jobs in existing community services offices and sex offender units run by the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. The other half could get jobs at new outpatient clinics, or be reassigned to other jobs. But the details on those clinics are fuzzy.

Kelly doubts they’ll ever happen. He says he remembers the 1960s when the state promised clinics after a massive downsizing of mental health hospitals.

KELLY: That’s never, never, never happened. There were patients sleeping in the park at night because there was no supervision for them to make sure thy’re in their homes where they’re supposed to be.

The reorganization plan was released during a time of instability for the office of mental health. There have been two acting commissioners since last summer.

State Senator Patty Ritchie says it shows. She says the details of the plan remain vague.

SEN. RITCHIE: It’s kind of like a plan that’s being developed as they go, and this is too critical of an issue to let that happen.

Ritchie will join Chuck Kelly and the task force at today’s meeting. And she’s co-sponsored a bill that would put the mental health reorganization on hold until at least 2015.

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