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State psychiatric center meeting draws 302 registrants

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OGDENSBURG - St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center supporters have mobilized.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 302 people had registered to attend today’s state Office of Mental Health listening tour stop at the psychiatric center. Of those, more than 70 have registered to speak, according to OMH.

The meeting, to be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the psychiatric center’s Unity Center, 1 Chimney Point Drive, is being held to gauge public input on state plans to change the way mental health services are delivered.

The state has not yet slated any specific hospitals for closure, but details are yet to emerge on its outline for decreasing reliance on inpatient treatment and focusing more attention on community support for the mentally ill. Part of that plan includes the formation of regional centers of excellence, the nature of which have not been defined.

That lack of detail has prompted fears that Ogdensburg’s psychiatric center could close.

“The latest information I have received is exactly what we heard at budget time: that there is potential for four hospitals to close, and they’re looking to come up with some others they will designate as centers of excellence,” state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said Tuesday. “This is the last stop for people who will be impacted, and I’ve heard, not from OMH but others, that they’re expecting a decision by the end of the month.”

The claim that the state expects some hospitals to close is one that OMH has refuted. In an email message last month, OMH spokesman Benjamin Rosen said of the prospect of closures, “any speculation would be premature prior to the end of the listening tour OMH has undertaken to receive comment from stakeholders and members of the public.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she plans to speak at today’s meeting, as does Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. Mrs. Russell said she, too, finds the state’s lack of detail about its plans troubling.

“There haven’t been any decisions made,” Mrs. Russell said. “It’s very difficult for us to tailor our remarks to that. It’s not like we’re in the same mode as we were when the Ogdensburg prison was proposed for closure. It should be taken as seriously, but our message has to be slightly different.”

She and Mrs. Ritchie both said that community leaders need to tout the positive things St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center officers its patients and the community support it enjoys.

“We’ve all come to the consensus that we put our best foot forward and talk about how our model isn’t broken, so why would you fix it?” Mrs. Russell said. “It’s meeting all the benchmarks and goals that OMH has put out for it. If we are doing a great job, maybe we should take lessons from this facility to try to bring those good things to other parts of the state.”

“We want to make sure the psych center has its best chance to stay open, and that means looking at other avenues to change how they’re doing business, including looking at a way it could be considered for becoming a center of excellence,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “We are a rural area, and we have some needs that are hard to meet because of the distance to the next closest facility.”

Mrs. Ritchie late last week launched an online petition at www.savethecenter.net to build support to keep the facility open. She said it has collected more than 2,000 signatures from people all over the country.

“There are more than 600 comments on there with some really good stories from people about how the psychiatric center either helped them personally or helped a loved one,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing that so many people are telling their stories. Some said they had nowhere else to turn and found lifesaving care at the facility.”

Mrs. Ritchie said those comments reinforce community officials’ mission to save the facility.

“We’re not just trying to save the facility because of the jobs,” she said. “We’re trying to save it because of the care that it gives.”

The psychiatric center employs 520 people and cares for roughly 180 patients.

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