State hospital cutbacks decried

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A group of mental health advocates has asked Gov. Ed Rendell to halt downsizing of Mayview State Hospital and other state hospitals for people with mental illnesses.

A petition from 288 people was sent to the governor this week, said Dr. Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia, a Beaver County psychiatrist and president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

The petition asks the governor to promise, prior to Tuesday's election, not to close more mental health beds in the state system.

"We ask this because of current inadequacies in community resources and the lack of a statewide comprehensive plan for closure and placement," the petition reads.

Kate Philips, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Mr. Rendell would not commit to avoiding downsizing of the state mental health system.

"The governor thinks he's moving in the right direction," she said.

The petition expresses concerns about the closure of Harrisburg State Hospital this year and notes that "many advocates believe the next hospital to close may be Mayview." The state shut one of Mayview's 10 wards in August, and officials have said they want to close another there within a year.

"The Pittsburgh area has already begun to feel the damaging effects of reduced bed availability," the petition said, alleging that some people with mental illnesses end up homeless or in jail.

Even without further downsizing, there is a shortage of community residential services, said Dr. Christine Martone, chief psychiatrist for a behavior clinic that performs assessments of Allegheny County Jail inmates.

Officials for some local groups expressed a different view.

While services need to be strengthened, "people aren't going unserved," said Mary Fleming, chief executive officer of Allegheny HealthChoices, which is developing a plan to improve behavioral health care in the area served by Mayview.

She said the hospital's waiting list has shortened in recent months.

Local residents "aren't calling here and saying, 'I can't get my ill family member in the hospital,' " said Rachel Freund, public education coordinator for the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County.

Among agencies that did not join the petition was the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society, a membership group of 1,800 psychiatrists.

But concerns from the society's Pittsburgh chapter prompted members of the statewide group to meet with state officials last week to discuss the effect of reducing mental health beds in Pennsylvania, said Dr. Barry Fisher, a local psychiatrist and the group's president.

Joan Erney, deputy secretary for the state Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said she agreed to consider having a public health school from outside Pennsylvania study the outcome of the closure of Harrisburg State Hospital.

Dr. Fisher said some doctors have spoken of greater difficulty in accessing inpatient psychiatric beds in acute care hospitals in the Harrisburg area, as well as increases in average lengths of stay in those units.

He said the study also should focus on the effect of other planned state hospital closings. He expressed hope that future downsizing would not take place until the study is completed.

For years, states have downsized their hospital systems that serve people with mental illnesses, said Oscar Morgan, chief operating officer for the National Mental Health Association.

Often, those efforts have been controversial, he said, in part because of concerns that patients are unprepared to leave the hospital or that services to support them in the community will be insufficient.

State hospital systems should focus on helping patients recover, he said, and on providing them with the support they need to return to life in the community.

Ms. Erney said Pennsylvania's effort to downsize its mental hospitals is driven in part by court decisions directing that people with mental illnesses be served, when possible, in community settings.

The state is developing plans for community support for about 900 patients who have been in state hospitals for more than two years, she said.

Serving more of those people in community settings "would force us to rethink the utility of maintaining eight state hospitals," she said.


Joe Fahy can be reached at jfahy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.


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