Unequal treatment for North Country patients at psych center in Ogdensburg
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 8:39 am

To the Editor:

The NYS Office of Mental Health is abandoning a key component of mental health care by closing the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

Transferring our hospital beds to Albany, Syracuse and Utica effectively denies access to this level of care for rural New York, while preserving and expanding access for the larger urban areas.

Over the years, the Office of Mental Health has promoted a system of care that is family driven and community based. Yet they are marketing their new plan to close rural psychiatric hospitals as a step away from the caretaker mentality of centuries past.

The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center provides evidence-based care that is highly effective and provides a well-established pathway for patients to reenter the community. The current hospital census is a small fraction of what it was 40 years ago, and there are multiple safeguards in place to ensure that individuals that are hospitalized require that level of care. Perhaps most notable is OMH’s plan to create centers of excellence by assembling committees to develop this concept. In other words, their plan is to make a plan, yet they know it will be good and will warrant calling their creation “Centers of Excellence.”

OMH has failed to evaluate the impact this closure will have on the safety and well being of North Country residents and communities. Yet they are moving ahead to dismantle the only state psychiatric center north of the thruway.

All of the counties served by SLPC are federally designated mental health professional shortage areas. In OMH’s Assessment of Unmet Needs (posted on their website) they acknowledge that lack of transportation and shortage of mental health providers contribute to unmet mental health needs for the rural population. They report that the prevalence of psychiatric disorders is similar among rural and non-rural adults, yet the rural population is significantly less likely to receive any type of mental health treatment. They further acknowledge that rural residents with serious mental illness have worse outcomes over time compared with non-rural residents.

To address the disparities cited in their report, they plan to hire a chief diversity officer and establish a Bureau of Cultural Competence to monitor federal/state laws and regulations that ensure equitable access to behavioral health services for all New Yorkers. It’s ironic that the agency that seeks to ensure equitable access is about to construct significant barriers to access by closing the North Country’s only state psychiatric center.

There is also an irony that the state agency that looks to develop “Centers of Excellence” is about to close one of the highest performing and cost-efficient psychiatric centers in New York State. The services that will be left behind will not be controlled locally but by psychiatric centers in Syracuse and Utica. This will undoubtedly facilitate a further reduction of services over time for our local communities. Please let the governor know that this is a bad plan for northern New York and that our hospital is needed here.

John Burke,

Retired employee,

St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center