By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - A proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to create regional centers for psychiatric care could mean the closure of some of the two-dozen psychiatric hospitals in the state.
New York operates 27 state psychiatric hospitals, almost seven times the national average and more than the next highest two states combined, in Texas and Virginia, state and federal reports have shown.
In his 2013-14 budget proposal, Cuomo is seeking to create regional centers of excellence for psychiatric programs. It would save $20 million in the coming fiscal year and $40 million the following year, Cuomo estimated. The money would be used for community-based, outpatient programs.
"This effort will ensure there will be ample capacity for treating individuals with mental illness who require inpatient services," Cuomo's proposal states.
The budget does not outline what the proposal would mean for the existing hospitals, but they are bracing for potential closures. The state has not indicated how many centers of excellence would be established.
The Rochester Psychiatric Center said in emails last month to workers that the facility expected to compete with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center for a western New York center of excellence.
"I believe that RPC will transition into the center of excellence," the Rochester center's executive director Betty Suhre said in an email Jan. 23 obtained by Gannett's Albany Bureau. "For many reasons, it is perfectly logical for us to step up and be counted."
Officials at the Rochester Psychiatric Center declined comment and referred questions to the state Office of Mental Health. A state spokesman, Benjamin Rosen, said Suhre was not speaking on behalf of the department in her email.
Morris Peters, a spokesman for Cuomo's budget office, said there has been no determination on how psychiatric hospitals in the state would be impacted by the new centers of excellence.
The state runs other psychiatric hospitals across upstate, including in Elmira, Binghamton and Orangetown, Rockland County.
"During the next several months, the agency will be gathering information from all constituent groups statewide on the best way to ensure ample capacity for treating individuals with mental illness who require inpatient services while reinvesting savings in community-based services," Peters said in a statement.
"It would be baseless speculation to assume how any specific facility will be affected prior to that process."
A state report last October said New York has less than 3,000 adult patients in psychiatric centers unrelated to criminal cases. That compares to 712,000 New Yorkers who are enrolled in outpatient programs.
Unions are concerned about the impact of the proposal on staff, and they fear layoffs. The state Legislature would have limited input over the process, said Flo Tripi, president of Western Region CSEA.
The commissioner of the Office of Mental Health would decide which facilities would be closed or contracted, essentially leaving it to Cuomo's office, Tripi said.
"We are objecting to this," Tripi said. "When you start reducing the number of people in these units, the governor's goal is to get them all out into the community or send them home. In many cases, these folks can't be home."
She estimated there are about 240 workers at the Rochester Psychiatric Center and 400 workers in Buffalo. The state on Thursday did not provide staffing or occupancy rates at the centers.
Cuomo has contracted the prison system mainly through administrative action, with lawmakers only approving the broad details in the budget. He closed seven prisons in 2011 and wants to close two more this year, including one in Beacon, Dutchess County.
Cuomo's budget proposal also seeks to close four juvenile detention facilities, including in Red Hook, Dutchess County, and Lansing, Tompkins County.
Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of state Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, said he supports Cuomo's effort to move patients out of psychiatric hospitals and into more community-based settings -- part of a nationwide trend.
"New York has lagged behind all other states from moving resources from state hospitals into the community," Rosenthal said.