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We should have a seat on OMH’s regional team

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It was disheartening to hear Friday that it could take a while for the state Office of Mental Health to appoint regional teams to decide what community services will be available to the mentally ill in lieu of inpatient services in Ogdensburg.

The teams were supposed to start work no later than Aug. 1 and have their recommendations forwarded to a statewide steering committee no later than Oct. 1. Any delay is a source of anxiety not only for the folks who work at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center and wonder if they will be able to transition into jobs that will allow them to stay here, but also for the people who currently rely on the center’s services.

On the bright side, however, the delay does offer a ray of hope as long as our officials jump on the opportunity it presents. It gives them more time to lobby hard for strong north country representation on the 15-member panel that will recommend what services OMH could offer here.

I must stress the phrase “jump on the opportunity.” In my conversations with officials Friday, it was apparent to me that nobody has been watching closely enough to know whether this panel had even been appointed, let alone who is likely to serve on it. That’s more than a little troubling.

The panel will be dubbed the Central New York Regional Center of Excellence Team, but it will make decisions about what services the Ogdensburg psychiatric center will offer as a community service hub. Its makeup will play heavily in its decision-making process. If the panel is stacked with people from the Syracuse area, you can bet your bottom dollar that the north country’s service offerings will be an afterthought.

We absolutely, positively need to make sure that doesn’t happen.

I didn’t get a chance Friday to talk to state Sen. Patricia Ritchie about what she plans to do to make sure the north country is represented on the team, but I did talk to Assemblywoman Addie Russell. Mrs. Russell’s view is that she will wait to see who gets appointed and then ask the state to reconsider if it turns out that nobody from our neck of the woods is on the team.

She told me that unfortunately, these decisions are being made by the executive branch, so lawmakers’ hands are essentially tied. The Legislature’s only real power in this fight is controlling OMH’s purse strings, she told me, and budget time will see the real fight for the future of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

Yes, the Legislature will wield most of its power in the budget process. If all other attempts before then fail, lawmakers can hopefully pull the financial plug on OMH’s irresponsible plans to gut the center’s inpatient services and force patients to go to Syracuse or Utica for treatment.

But surely there is much that could be done before the budget process begins to try to reverse OMH’s plan. To take a wait-and-see approach is the height of irresponsibility.

I might be picking on Mrs. Russell, but the silence is deafening from all of the north country’s state lawmakers about what they will do to make sure our region has a seat at the table while the next phase of decisions rolls out. Instead, I have seen the continuation of the ineffective type of representation we have had all along in this process.

The executive branch might be powerful, but it is not an island unto itself. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is not a dictator. To suggest that our lawmakers could have no say in this process is absolutely ridiculous, especially since political parties have a great deal to say about gubernatorial appointments a lot of the time.

The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force, to its credit, has done well getting local governments and the North Country Regional Economic Development Council to pass resolutions opposing OMH’s plan. That’s a good thing, and I don’t want to detract from that.

But they also need to be pulling out whatever political firepower they have to exert influence on who serves on the regional OMH team, and hold the feet of elected officials and political party leaders to the fire to get the job done. That includes holding the state elected officials within their own ranks accountable for their action or inaction.

We might be continually told that there isn’t much within our control when it comes to the OMH plan, but we sure as hell can try to exert influence whenever we can. A wait-and-see approach is patently unacceptable.

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