Few individuals are as powerless as the mentally ill patients housed Spring Grove Hospital Center, the historic, publicly owned Catonsville psychiatric care facility that has endured decades of neglect. This month, for the bargain price of $1, Spring Grove was sold to the University of Maryland Baltimore County, with the approval of the Maryland Board of Public Works, under what might generously be described as a plan severely lacking in detail and outside scrutiny.
The deal was consummated over the objections of mental health groups, who were nonetheless assured that Spring Grove would continue to operate as is for at least the next decade and perhaps a decade more, under a lease-back arrangement by UMBC. It was all a product of the kind of backroom dealing that the three-member board was designed to prevent but in more recent years has too often become a willing participant.
The transfer might well prove to be a good move, but how can anyone judge that right now? The Maryland Department of Health has certainly been a poor steward of the 175-acre campus, with its abandoned buildings riddled with asbestos and the patient facilities still in use in poor condition. The neglect started long before Larry Hogan was ever elected governor.
And while UMBC’s outgoing president Freeman Hrabowski has been a marvel of higher education in both equity and excellence, it’s clear that UMBC did not become involved to help run this hospital, which frequently houses and provides care for people accused of serious crimes but who were judged not mentally competent to stand trial. Rather, UMBC’s goal is ultimately to use some portion of the land to expand its own campus footprint. Again, that would be an excellent outcome broadly supported by the community, but it does not solve the riddle of what to do with the thousand or so patients who come through the Catonsville hospital, the largest of its kind in Maryland and one of the oldest in the nation.
The truth is that assuring the status quo continues for a decade or more is not much assurance at all given the substandard conditions facing patients and employees alike right now. And the $1 sales price is troubling given that past closings of state psychiatric hospitals took great care to make sure revenue produced by land sales could be used for future patient care; the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort and Marina in Cambridge, for example, helped finance a new psychiatric facility. Perhaps there was no value there because of demolition and remediation costs.
Neither Governor Hogan nor Treasurer Dereck E. Davis, the Maryland General Assembly’s designee on the board, was willing to even table the matter to provide answers to that and other lingering questions, despite Comptroller Peter Franchot’s request to do so (Mr. Franchot voted against the deal).
Was this completely out of left field? No, it was not. The state health department’s facilities master plan calls for “developing strategic partnerships to transition services currently provided” at Spring Grove to “healthcare and community providers” beginning in 2032. Or, to translate this into English, the plan is to kick the can down the road to some future governor to privatize patient care and close shop entirely. That’s the hard part, particularly given Maryland’s existing chronic shortage of inpatient psychiatric beds. The much easier part is to hand it off to UMBC and celebrate the transfer, as was done Wednesday at UMBC’s Skylight Room.
We have been fans of Dr. Hrabowski, particularly for his accomplishments in directing minority students toward careers in math and science. But this is really not the way to execute public policy in so sensitive an arena as mental health care. Kudos to him and his brilliant career, but shame on those in Annapolis, the lame duck governor included, who thought it much easier to railroad this decision without appropriate scrutiny and public involvement.
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