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Psychiatric center’s future affects all of us

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Wednesday is an important day for the north country.

That’s the day state Office of Mental Health officials will hold a listening tour stop in Ogdensburg to ask us what we think the future of mental health care should be in the state, and, hopefully, when they will let us know more about their plans to that end.

So far we know this: state officials think there are too many inpatient mental health beds and more reliance needs to be on community-based support for the mentally ill. We don’t yet know what that view and a nebulous plan to establish “regional centers for excellence” built around that view holds for the future of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, its patients and the 520 people working there.

We don’t know for sure whether that means the center could close. But that’s not a chance any of us want to take. Its closure would have a devastating economic effect, not just on Ogdensburg and its surrounding communities, but the entire county and beyond. The potential loss of 520 jobs should have every business mobilized to tell state officials that their decisions leave St. Lawrence County’s fate hanging in the balance.

That’s 520 customers no longer able to afford to shop on our stores. That’s 520 people who might have to move away to find work. And, just as important, that’s lots of patients who might join the ranks of the mentally ill currently roaming our streets without proper support or care and without hope.

If you think our area is a ghost of its former glory now, just wait.

It could be that all this worry is for nothing, and I hope it is. We already know, however, that OMH proposed four unnamed psychiatric centers for closure in the state budget, a proposal that the Senate rejected. State officials also wanted to lift the required 12-month period for it to let hospitals know they would be closing. Again, that proposal was rejected.

Being rejected then only meant that those plans didn’t get into the state budget. That didn’t kill them for good.

It’s clear that under OMH’s plans to revamp state-run mental health care, being cheerily billed as the formation of “regional centers of excellence,” hospitals will close.

We do have some things in our favor to keeps ours open. It doesn’t make sense for the state to close a hospital as geographically remote as ours, which already serves the entire area north of Syracuse. It also doesn’t make sense for the state to close a hospital that has been recognized time and again for the high quality of care it gives its patients, and the relative cost-efficiency it affords the state in delivering that care.

But those things are in our favor only by assuming that the state makes logical decisions. We know that is not always the case.

When the state closed Utica Psychiatric Center a few years ago, according to state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, it had just invested in a new building on that campus. Mr. Griffo, who represents Utica, has told me we shouldn’t take anything for granted. We should probably listen to the voice of experience on this one.

As of Thursday, there were more than 200 people registered to attend Wednesday’s meeting, which runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the psychiatric center’s Unity Center. Of those, more than 50 are registered to speak. I would bet that even more have registered since then and will register over the next few days. We’ll see you all there.

To register, go online to http://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/excellence/registration.html. Our newspaper’s website also has a quick link to the registration form. It’s on our homepage, www.ogd.com, at the top of the left column.

As a note to anyone who gave us a letter on this issue that does not appear in today’s edition, they will be published over the next few days in The Journal.

Keep those letters coming so the state can see how important the psychiatric center is to our community, its patients and their families and the economic well-being of our region. We don’t know how soon decisions will be made, so it’s important to keep reinforcing the message until they are.

The squeaky wheel has gotten the grease before. Hopefully it will again.

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