State plans to close psychiatric center

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland officials plan to close Baltimore's only public psychiatric hospital, relocating some patients to state facilities in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties while forcing outpatient alcohol and drug treatment programs housed there to find new homes.

The plan, detailed in Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget for next year, calls for shuttering the 51-bed in- patient facility at the Walter P. Carter Center downtown. Outpatient mental health programs, which serve thousands throughout the city, will have to move elsewhere by July 2010, when officials plan to close the center. Most of the 119 employees of the impatient hospital would be relocated to another mental health center, while state officials said they would work to try to find new state jobs for the rest.

John M. Colmers, the state health secretary, said the changes could save about $5 million in his agency's roughly $8 billion budget amid a time of severe belt-tightening statewide. The agency is also moving to consolidate centers, reduce the size of state institutions and increase the number of community-based programs.

"Our challenge is to find as many cuts as possible while continuing to meet our responsibility of protecting the health of the population," he said.

Mental health advocates said they do not object to the closure of the outdated building - complete with peeling paint and small work spaces. But they said they fear that patients may be moved too far from their homes.

"We are not opposed to the state closing operations at the Carter Center. It's a very old facility with a lot of issues," said Kate Farinholt, Baltimore director of National Alliance on Mental Illness. "The concern is that you make sure there are still beds for these people, preferably within travel distance to their families and community supports."

Suzanne Harrison, director of psychiatry at LifeBridge Health, which operates Sinai Hospital in Baltimore and Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown, said she fears the closure will put pressure on other hospitals and overburdened outpatient programs. "If we do this, what will be the impact on other aspects of the system?" she said.

The city health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said he will be asking state officials for regular reports about the relocation of city residents and will push for more outpatient services in Baltimore. "There definitely needs to be a plan to sustain and ultimately grow the outpatient services for people with mental illness in Baltimore," he said.

Colmers said the agency is working on a program that will allow some psychiatric patients to be admitted to the private Bon Secours and Sheppard Pratt hospitals, at state cost. Patients who must be hospitalized because of a court order will be admitted to either Spring Grove Hospital in Catonsville or the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, where a new 44-bed facility is to open.

Now, the inpatient facility at the Carter Center is using about 34 of its 51 beds. Last year, 328 patients were treated there, according to the state.

It is unclear where people now served by Carter's outpatient programs would go. The University of Maryland School of Medicine operates several of Carter's mental health and substance abuse programs. University officials said they are committed to keeping those services in the city and to keeping the Carter name.

Named after the late civil rights activist Walter P. Carter, the seven-story center opened in 1976 to provide inpatient and community services in South and Southwest Baltimore. Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat and Carter's daughter, said she believes a coalition that includes labor unions, mental health workers and other lawmakers would be able to derail closure of the facility.

"The center was built as a memorial to not only my father, but to the civil rights legacy he left, which was that this was a place people could go to get the services and help they needed to become productive members of society," Carter said.

Carter said that she plans to introduce two bills. One would prohibit the center's closure. The other bill would put into law certain requirements in case of closure, to ensure that the same level of services are offered elsewhere in the city.

Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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