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Ritchie touts reassurance from OMH about psych center job preservation; CSEA skeptical

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Reassurance by the state Office of Mental Health that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s 520 employees will be able to remain working in the north country is being met with skepticism from an employees union and the head of a task force looking to preserve the center’s services.

OMH has proposed moving the center’s adult inpatient services to Syracuse starting next year and its children’s services to Utica starting in 2015 under a plan to downsize inpatient treatment for the mentally ill. The plan calls for more community support services for the mentally ill in lieu of inpatient care.

In a letter released Tuesday by state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, acting OMH Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock said the potential loss of jobs at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center connected to the loss of inpatient services has been misinterpreted.

“This plan will provide the nearly 520 current employees of St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to remain in the north country if they choose,” Mrs. Woodlock wrote in a letter to Mrs. Ritchie.

Mrs. Woodlock said at least 260 of the center’s employees currently working in community outpatient programs and its sex offender treatment program will keep their current positions, and the remaining staff will have the opportunity to work in expanded mental health services.

“If employees choose not to join the OMH RCE Community Services expansion, they will have other choices,” Mrs. Woodlock said. Those choices will include the potential to work for other state agencies in the north country or voluntary reassignment to another facility.

Mrs. Ritchie’s office, in posting the letter to a Facebook page it manages dubbed “Save The Center”, said the commissioner was “guaranteeing every psych center job.”

Stephen A. Madarasz, Civil Service Employees Association statewide director of communications, said any guarantee about job preservation at this point should be taken with a grain of salt.

He said what jobs will remain at the psychiatric center cannot be determined until the state decides what community services it will offer. That decision will be made by a regional task force that has not yet been appointed.

“I’m sure the fact that the senator is getting this assurance is a good thing. It’s better than not getting any assurance,” Mr. Madarasz said. “But we have learned over the years that political promises get made all the time and they don’t always follow through. We don’t have any particular reason to trust this administration because they have reneged on a lot of things they’ve said they were going to do.”

CSEA represents approximately 400 of the center’s employees.

Mr. Madarasz said while no layoffs are planned, some employees may be forced to take other positions that carry lower pay and far different responsibilities, or seek employment at another hospital.

The closest state-run mental health facility to the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is in Syracuse.

“We’ve seen that at other agencies with this administration,” he said. “The alternative to layoffs is somebody taking a job at lesser pay or in a different field or agency.”

He said that is what happened with the recent closure of youth detention facilities in New York City as the state moves toward community services to rehabilitate young offenders.

“The administration’s idea of offering somebody a job in their community was giving them a position in Albany if they live in New York City,” he said. “I don’t want to throw cold water on this letter from the commissioner. We want to acknowledge there is a desire to deal with this situation, but we will remain skeptical until we have more details.”

Mrs. Ritchie did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment in response to Mr. Madarasz’s remarks.

Sarah V. Compo, her director of communications, instead emailed the following statement: “Senator Ritchie has been committed to preserving jobs and mental health care at St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center since day one, and she will continue to fight for the community, jobs and access to quality mental heath care in our region.”

St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force Chairman Charles W. Kelly said he agreed with Mr. Madarasz that the situation calls for a healthy dose of skepticism.

“I find it very, very hard to believe after reading the document OMH sent out and the fact that they’re not going to have adult patients or children there that the jobs will stay here,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’d have much more faith in her letter if it had the governor’s name on it.”

He said the task force’s next step is to seek a face-to-face meeting with Mrs. Woodlock. He said he hoped that meeting could be held by the end of the month.

“We are developing a list of questions we want answered,” Mr. Kelly said.

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