Shawnee A. Barnes
ITHACA — The imminent closings of inpatient psychiatric units in Binghamton and Elmira mean there will be no long-term care options for mental health patients in Tompkins County or in the Southern Tier.
And for Abby Eller, of Ithaca, that means potentially traveling to Buffalo if her son were to be hospitalized again. Over the last 10 years, Eller’s son, 33, has been hospitalized several times and most recently spent seven weeks at the Greater Binghamton Health Center, which is scheduled to close its inpatient unit next year.
“I know what it means to make two-hour trips to visit my son. I can’t imagine going to Buffalo,” said Eller, who, along with her husband, visited her son weekly when he was in Binghamton. “Regular contact is so important. Family is critical for support and love, and for bringing normalcy back into their lives.”
In July, the state’s Office of Mental Health announced the conversion of the Greater Binghamton Health Center and the Elmira Psychiatric Center into outpatient care units.
This translates into a loss of more than 200 adult beds, and roughly 40 beds for children and adolescents in the Southern Tier. The nearest hospital for long-term care for youths will be in Utica.
Under the plan, supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 24 inpatient hospitals statewide would be consolidated into 15 regional “Centers of Excellence” while establishing more than two dozen outpatient-only service centers. The plan begins in 2014 and will be phased in over three years. The expected savings are $20 million the first year.
Families will have to travel longer distances to see their loved ones, putting added stress on them in already stressful situations, said Jean Poland, board president of the Finger Lakes chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which supports families facing mental sickness.
“It’s already difficult for families now in Tompkins County and in the far regions to get to Elmira and Binghamton,” she said. “We know having a strong support network is really important to the healing that goes on.”
The plan indicates there will be overnight accommodations at the regional centers and that Skype will be available for family members at home to communicate with patients.
But still, the plan doesn’t address the issue of fewer beds, Poland said.
“The plan looks like there aren’t going to be as many beds. So if there are no beds in Buffalo but there are in New York City, is that where our people will go?” Poland asked.
“I’m concerned about people who are very sick and in crisis, if they don’t get the help they need, will possibly end up in jail or under a bridge with no care,” she added.
At a public hearing last month in Elmira, Tompkins County Mental Health Commissioner Sue Romanczuk voiced concern over the disruption in the “crucial element of the continuum of care for the treatment of the most seriously mentally ill.”
Once the transition is made, the closest adult inpatient psychiatric hospital is in Syracuse, followed by Utica and Buffalo. The children’s and adolescents’ unit at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse also will close, according to the plan, but will expand its adult beds from 105 to 185.
The loss of the children’s units in the region concerns Dr. Henry Gerson, medical director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Cayuga Medical Center.
“We’ll be the only adolescent unit serving 15 counties,” said Gerson, whose unit has 19 adult beds and six adolescent beds, and sees 800 total patients a year.
“My concern is that we’re at a point where the underserved areas of upstate New York are looking at what could be a major inflection point. Not an incremental availability of mental health, but a sudden and violent shift in the availability of mental health here,” he noted.
Gerson’s unit specializes in short-term care, with the average length of stay being a week. Some 3 percent to 5 percent of the patients go on to longer-term care, he said.
“Elmira and Binghamton are some of the most efficient hospitals in the state system, and they have low length of stay and a rapid turnover rate. We may not see that in the (Centers of Excellence),” he said.
Tompkins County lawmakers drafted a resolution to the state calling for a regional center in the Southern Tier. “It’s very short-sighted,” said legislator Martha Robertson, D-Dryden, of the closings. Those hardest hit, she said, will be the rural poor.
“It’s unacceptable, and it doesn’t appear the plan would actually save much money,” she said.
For many families such as Abby Eller’s, there are many questions to be answered. But one thing she knows is that the nature of mental illness won’t change. “It’s a chronic illness; you’re never home free.”