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State will release plan to revamp mental health system July 8

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OGDENSBURG - Those anxiously awaiting word on the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s fate will have to wait another month.

That news might seem gloomy, but local and state officials said Friday that it carries a distinct silver lining.

A delay in releasing a plan to reform the state’s mental health system means state Office of Mental Health officials could be taking seriously the hundreds of comments submitted in support of the psychiatric center, leaving them reluctant to recommend it for closure.

“From our perspective, the more they look at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, we think the more positives they’re going to see,” St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency CEO Patrick J. Kelly said. “That this process is taking longer hopefully means good things for us.”

OMH Acting Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock said in a statement Friday that the department has requested more time to craft a plan to establish regional centers of excellence and reshape mental health service delivery. She said OMH is carefully reviewing more than 2,000 public comments as it develops its plan, which slated for release July 8.

She had said at last month’s listening tour stop that she expected to have a plan by May 20.

“It is critical that we take the time to get the OMH Regional Centers of Excellence Plan done right,” Ms. Woodlock said Friday.

Ms. Woodlock had said last month that the state is moving toward decreased reliance on inpatient care and greater emphasis on community-based supports for people with mental illness.

A planned decrease in the number of inpatient beds has prompted fears that the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will close, putting 520 workers out of a job, forcing patients to travel hundreds of miles for care and compounding problems facing an already overburdened outpatient care system.

The state’s proposed regional centers of excellence will provide care based on partnerships with community agencies, universities and hospitals. Officials at the listening tour urged Ms. Woodlock to consider designating Ogdensburg’s psychiatric center as a center of excellence.

“I was very impressed with the acting director’s attentiveness to what everyone had to say,” Ogdensburg City Manager John M. Pinkerton said Friday. “I think she listened, and hopefully her staff listened.”

State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said she doesn’t know what could happen, but she finds the news encouraging.

“The fact that the commissioner came up when we asked her to, listened to us and took the time to review all the information she got here can only be a good sign,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

She said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made job preservation and creation a centerpiece of his agenda.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that they would totally close down the facility with that many jobs riding on it,” she said.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, echoed that sentiment.

“What I hope is that we made the point that you can’t just make a cookie-cutter decision and leave whole parts of the state without necessary services,” she said. “It’s my hope they put a significant amount of thought into their approach to services in the rural part of the state.”

Officials from St. Lawrence University and Clarkson University have also made a case for expanding their relationships with the psychiatric center. Students from both universities, SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton complete internships there.

Clarkson University President Anthony G. Collins had noted in a May letter to OMH that his institution felt it was important to keep the Ogdensburg facility fully funded.

He pointed out the university’s Physical Assistant program sends students to do clinical rotations at the center, and Clarkson’s Psychology Department has stiudents that do internships at the facility. He said the facility would also be a natural partner for internships and rotations for the university’s newly created Occupatipnal Therapy program.

“Clarkson University already has deep educational and professional ties with the center, and we are lookng forward to even more ties in the future,” he wrote.

Mr. Collins said Friday that it’s possible state officials did not previously realize what higher education opportunities were readily available near the psychiatric center.

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council, of which Mr. Collins is co-chairman, has developed a strategic plan that, in part, emphasizes collaboration with universities and colleges for research, entrepreneurship and workforce development.

“They’re (OMH) looking for connections to higher education,” Mr. Collins said. “The strategic plan we developed and the connection and collaboration across the north country now is second to none in the state. I think people are seeing us in a different light.”

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