The Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center in Chestertown closed last week despite the community’s efforts to keep it open. State health officials closed the facility, which employed about 85 workers and admitted about 200 patients a year, in favor of community-based programs and service agreements with private hospitals. Officials expect to save $2.7-million this year and $7-million each year in the future. Tonya Rider, who worked at the facility for more than a decade, says some employees have been transferred and others are now unemployed.
Months of community outrage and constant political pressure failed to keep Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center off Governor Martin O’Malley’s chopping block. A motion by Comptroller Peter Franchot to keep Upper Shore open as a smaller operation died for lack of a second. Instead, O’Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp voted to adopt a plan by Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers. Franchot voted nay.
Colmers astonished Chestertown residents and mental health providers in August when he persuaded the BPW to vote to close Upper Shore by March 1. The 40-bed hospital serves about 200 people a year. There are about 90 state employees and 20 contractor jobs that will be lost. Colmers presented his “transition to community plan” at the packed meeting. It calls for expanding community outpatient treatment; adding one mental health professional to Chester River Hospital Center’s emergency room; and, adding four crisis and 16 residential beds at the Whitsitt Center. Whitsitt, a drug treatment center funded by Kent County and federal government dollars, shares a building with Upper Shore. If Shore treatment centers are overloaded, the state will pay hospitals in Delaware.
The DHMH figures its plan saves $5-million a year. O’Malley, Franchot and Kopp heard about two hours of testimony, mostly favoring keeping the hospital open. Some 40 people attended, many wearing green stickers or green shirts that read “Keep Upper Shore Open.” Walt Palmer, Upper Shore board chairman, said an alternative plan endorsed by trustees, hospital employees and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees the hospital employees’ union would reduce the number of beds to 30 and result in 28 layoffs. Palmer said Colmers’ plan was overly optimistic about treating patients outside the hospital.
Franchot compared the plan to close the hospital to intentionally dropping a fine piece of china on the ground, breaking it, and then trying to glue the pieces back together. He supported the Upper Shore plan for three reasons: the hospital is an exceptionally well-run facility; the hospital is a desperately needed source of good paying jobs in the region; and, the original decision on August 26 by the board to close the hospital was based on incorrect information. The board was told at the time that half the patients served in the previous fiscal year were from the western shore.
Maryland lawmakers and supporters of Kent County’s Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center promised to use the upcoming legislative session to fight the facility’s closure by the Board of Public Works.