Community mental health care can shine without hospital

From the Eugene Register-Guard, December 10, 2016
By Gary Crum

In 2012, I was an outspoken opponent of plans to build the State Mental Hospital that now stands between Junction City and Eugene.

Along with every patients’ advocacy group, virtually every professional in the field of mental health care, every professional mental health professional organization and the governor-appointed Mental Health/State Hospital Advisory Committee, I advocated directing the money, instead, to a continuum of community-based services: small residential programs, short-term crisis and evaluation centers, walk-in clinics, ongoing therapy and counseling, and mobile crisis intervention programs such as Eugene’s Cahoots crisis intervention service.

Instead, the Legislature approved construction of the state hospital and committed Oregon taxpayers to $130 million in construction bonds and, at the hospital’s current population, $34.5 million annually in operations cost.

With the current population of 81 patients, that’s a cost of $425,000 per patient per year. The state reports that there are more than 400 full-time employees at the hospital — a ratio of five employees to each patient.

In her budget submission, Gov. Kate Brown has proposed the hospital be closed and the patients relocated. She mentions relocating the patients in “community residential facilities.” I suggest they would be likely absorbed into the total state hospital population, with the lowest-risk patients being relocated into community facilities and higher-risk patients placed at the Salem State Hospital.

While many of those 400 jobs would be eliminated, some could be saved with a redirection of part of that $34.5 million savings toward badly needed community services. The provision of mental health services is not a jobs program. It is, or at least it should be, a continuum of services to provide support, care and treatment for our vulnerable mentally ill fellow Oregonians, many of whom are homeless and on the streets of our communities at this very moment. Care should be provided in a sensible, efficient and cost-effective fashion.

The Junction City Hospital, with its embarrassingly exorbitant budget, does not provide that continuum of services. In fact, by dominating available mental health funding, it prevents those services from being provided. The state, by performing a reassessment of the total mental health needs in our communities, could save millions — and at the same time provide meaningful support at the community level, where it is so sorely needed.

Taxpayers, often with justification, accuse politicians of wasting tax dollars. The Oregon Legislature has been presented with an opportunity to change that, in at least one instance.

The hospital needs to be closed, and the savings split between supporting community mental health services and reducing the overall budget. I hope the Legislature is willing to at least consider such a proposal.

Gary Crum of Junction City is a retired counselor and teacher.