Our View: State hospital closure makes little sense

Op Ed from Medford Mail Tribune, December 11, 2016

As predictable as Gov. Kate Brown’s budget proposal is, with its mixture of sin-tax increases and various spending tweaks, one big budget cut came as a surprise. Brown proposes to permanently close a new state mental hospital in Junction City less than two years after it opened, eliminating 422 jobs and leaving patients with nowhere to go.

The $130 million hospital was built to serve “Southern Oregon.” Several sites in the Medford area were considered, but in the end it was built about as far north as it could be without officially being in the northern half of the state. So perhaps we should be grateful we’re not seeing the loss of that many good jobs in the local economy. But there is no comfort in that, because the decision is a bad one for so many reasons.

The hospital houses 81 patients at present, with a capacity of 100 beds. It was designed to serve 174, but the Legislature has never fully funded it. It is a state-of-the-art facility, with a cafe, outdoor spaces, a special room with tinted lighting and soft music to reduce stress and other amenities designed to make patients as comfortable as possible.

Brown has said she prefers to see patients get mental health treatment in community-based facilities rather than institutionalizing them. But community-based treatment is already overwhelmed – as can readily be seen on the streets of the state’s larger cities – and Brown’s budget does not provide for any additional funding.

What’s more, state Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, a chief backer of the hospital, told The Register-Guard that a majority of the patients there now have committed crimes and been found guilty except for insanity, meaning they require a secure facility. If the Junction City hospital closes, that means the troubled Oregon State Hospital in Salem is the only place that can accommodate them.

Brown has proposed closing the hospital in 2018, saving $34.5 million a year, most of it in personnel costs. That would help the state’s strapped health care budget, but it would do so at the expense of vulnerable patients – and put communities at risk if underserved patients are left to fend for themselves.

The Legislature would have to approve any plan to shutter the hospital before it could close. Lawmakers will face plenty of hard budget choices when they convene for the 2017 session early next year. It won’t be possible to avoid some painful cuts, but the budget should not be balanced on the backs of Oregon’s most vulnerable citizens.