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A murky plan

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Ogdensburg residents who have watched the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center steadily decline from 2,264 patients in 1955 to 68 today had their fears confirmed this week: The inpatient portion of the hospital will close over the next three years.

After several delays, the New York Office of Mental Health announced Wednesday that inpatient services would eventually be relocated. This part of a three-year plan by the OMH to revamp how it delivers psychiatric care is what appears to be the final step in a long process that began in 1989 when the Letchworth building was closed, followed a year later with what became a wave of layoffs. Then in 1997, the hospital was reduced from 114 beds to 90. Today it is just 68.

The plan calls for adult inpatient services to begin moving to the Empire Update Regional Center of Excellence in Syracuse this year. Inpatient services for children and youths will be moved to the Empire State Regional Center of Excellence in Utica in 2015. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will retain its services for sex offenders it now serves, according to the announcement.

This news is troubling to many people for a variety of reasons.

The biggest concern is how these changes will impact local people using the services in Ogdensburg. Statistics from the OMH show there are now 68 adults and nine children using the services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, excluding the 90 individuals in the sex offender program. How are people who live in North Country going to deal with being forced to travel much greater distances especially in winter conditions if these changes are implemented?

Charles W. Kelly, chairman of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Task Force, wrote a letter published earlier this week in the Watertown Daily Times. He pointed out that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s catchment area is 10,699 square miles, an area larger than three of the OMH’s current regions. Mr. Kelly wrote that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is the only OMH psychiatric facility north of the Thruway communities.

Of course, the other major concern is how these changes will affect the community from an economic standpoint. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center employs 520 people, down from 1,138 in 1988. The OMH has been unclear about what level of staffing would be required at the Ogdensburg site once the inpatient services are relocated elsewhere.

The OMH plan calls for community-based psychiatric services to be expanded. Some of the facility’s employees would be absorbed by local groups offering similar services, according to the plan. Other employees would be eligible for vacant positions within the OMH system, state officials said.

The plan is murky, however, on how these transitions would be implemented. Would all 520 employees be ensured work at other community or state sites? What would this mean for the numerous families who live in the Ogdensburg area and depend on their locally based jobs?

It’s clear that state services must change to fit the evolving needs of those served, and this is never an easy process. Ogdensburg and the surrounding area have become too reliant on government-based jobs, and the people there must adapt to the realities of systems that need to be revised.

But more clarity is needed to understand how these changes will impact local residents and which direction the region needs to go to remain economically viable. Officials from Ogdensburg and St. Lawrence County should convene an open forum of their three state senators and five assembly representatives for an open discussion of the path forward.

Municipal, county and state representatives must brainstorm to bring fresh ideas to develop a comprehensive strategy to end the malaise inflicted on Ogdensburg. The mantra cannot simply be that they’ll fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. That ship is about to sail, and we all must plan ahead for a future that adapts to the changing times.

For now, though, we urge the OMH to convince the North Country community that the details of its plan to ensure psychiatric services will continue to be offered to local residents effectively. These programs will be of little value to people here if they can’t access them in a timely fashion.

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