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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"Right direction, wrong decision"
ALBANY, July 14 -- I think the Cuomo administration tried to take a step in the right direction last week, but it made the wrong decision.
I believe it’s a decision that risks unacceptable personal -- and public -- safety and well-being consequences for an 11-county service area encompassing the Southern Tier, Finger Lakes and western New York -- consequences that potentially include a diminishment of programs and services for the mentally ill and their families, especially in rural communities, at a time when these services need to be as readily available, deliverable and effective as possible. And before any advocates start making accusations of “stigmatizing” those with mental illnesses, I’ll stress that my concerns here are not a matter of fearing those with emotional challenges but, instead, of fearing for them under this plan.
What I’m referring to is last week’s release of the Cuomo administration’s plan to reorganize and restructure New York State’s system of mental health. It’s been in the works for some time, but the state Office of Mental Health (OMH) made it final that it intends to close the Elmira Psychiatric Center (Elmira PC) and psychiatric hospitals in eight other communities statewide next year. Existing services will be consolidated within 15 “regional centers of excellence” OMH plans to open across the state. Under the plan, the Elmira PC will be merged into one regional center known as the Great Lakes RCE that will be located in Buffalo.
You can read the entire plan online at http://www.omh.ny.gov/omhweb/excellence/rce/.
Those of us who closely monitored the plan’s development over the past year can’t say that we’re surprised. We’re not. But we held out some hope that common sense might still prevail in determining the future of the Elmira PC. We hoped that maybe we had made a strong enough case for the ongoing operation of the Elmira PC as deserving of a central role in carrying out New York’s mental health mission, and vision.
Apparently we didn’t. But it doesn’t mean that the final plan suddenly makes sense just because it’s been made public. Because it doesn’t. Most notably, the plan calls for ZERO children’s beds (public or private) within the 11-county area served by the Elmira PC, and only six private hospital adolescent beds. It also calls for just 1.4 private hospital adult psychiatric beds for each 10,000 of the service area’s population. In short, the plan leaves rural New York citizens “out of sight, out of mind.”
Furthermore, the plan clearly impacts upstate New York’s facilities and communities much more heavily than downstate. I’ll highlight one example. The operation of the Kingsboro PC in Brooklyn has been heavily scrutinized by, among others, federal and state regulators, and watchdog groups. In fact, for four consecutive years the Kingsboro PC has failed to receive a key federal certification, resulting in the loss of $25 million annually. Kingsboro cannot match Elmira on many key efficiency and treatment measures -- yet Kingsboro stays open, Elmira closes.
I believe I made what remains the key point in a letter to OMH Acting Commissioner Kristin Woodlock back in May. “In my view," I wrote, "the Elmira PC fully demonstrates a proven and unquestionable record as a cost-effective, efficient, continually evolving, innovative, high quality and successful provider of mental health services. I fully share the belief of many that the Elmira PC is one of New York’s flagship mental health facilities, a top performer that has consistently rated well above statewide averages in key efficiency and success of treatment indicators.”
In many ways, the Cuomo administration touts its new plan as one that makes so much more fiscal sense while providing a higher quality of care through a network of “community-based” organizations. But if it’s hard, if not nearly impossible, to improve on the Elmira PC’s tradition of fiscal responsibility, efficiency, innovation and, most of all, accessible, compassionate, high quality care for patients and families, what, exactly, are we going to accomplish?
That’s the point I’m going to keep making together with many other local leaders. The OMH plan calls for the closing a year from now. That gives us a year to keep making the case that the Elmira PC and its incredible corps of dedicated professionals and staff must remain central to carrying out New York’s short- and long-term vision for mental health care and treatment, because only the Elmira PC can:
-- continue to offer the best available and most convenient access to mental health care for our rural communities, patients and regions, many of whom are simply reluctant to seek or undergo care in a more urban and/or suburban setting like Buffalo or Rochester;
-- continue to stand as the signature inpatient and outpatient provider system throughout the rural-dominated, 11-county catchment area (OMH’s largest service area, by the way) where, in particular, few private providers are located and there simply is no community-based foundation of care;
-- continue its long-standing commitment to cost effective, efficient, patient-oriented, successful care and treatment – one that you would be hard-pressed to replicate or improve upon in any other way within this service region.
In other words, the Elmira PC has established a fundamentally important network and tradition of care throughout a region where these programs and services have always presented such a challenge to develop and deliver. It's difficult, if not impossible, to envision any community-based network that could ever be as successful as the Elmira PC has been and would continue to be in the future.
I’ll say it again: it’s the wrong decision. It’s disappointing and disheartening. The Elmira PC has been an absolute lifeline of care for patients and families. Its programs and services have long stood as the first responder for mental health treatment of all shapes and sizes, as well as the front line of defense against the firearms-related and other tragedies so often associated with the violent mentally ill.
So now we get back to work. I will continue to urge Governor Cuomo and his administration to reconsider the future of the Elmira PC. A group of supporters will continue rallying support through its website, www.supportepc.org.
We’re not about to give up the fight to somehow find a way to ensure that the Elmira PC’s tradition of care, prevention and treatment for patients and families throughout our rural communities is carried on.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison
Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967
Doris L. Karius, 546-5544
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Margaret Starbuck, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Christopher Friend --
Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869