Central State ending most mental health care

tfain@macon.comJanuary 21, 2010 

ATLANTA — Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia’s largest hospital for people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities for decades, will move away from treating most mental illnesses and close a major building, the state announced Wednesday.

The state will keep operating its nursing home on the Central State campus, as well as its maximum security facility for mentally ill patients. Patients with severe physical disabilities still will have a home on campus, even though new patients are still being diverted to other facilities now because of a November federal review that found recurring safety issues.

That diversion has been in place for mental health patients, too. Now, it will essentially become permanent for them.

Shannon Harvey, executive director of the Macon-based River Edge Behavioral Health Center, said Central State was the closest provider for the most complicated cases. The second-closest facility, in Augusta, is often full, she said. In some cases, patients would benefit from family visits but now have to travel to Rome. In other cases, patients can’t get transferred quickly.

Harvey cited the case of a woman who walked into a River Edge outpatient clinic one day at 1 p.m. The state hospitals didn’t find her a spot until 9 p.m., long after the local clinic staff was supposed to have closed for the day.

“This poor suicidal person has been waiting eight hours to find out where they’re going to get help,” Harvey said. “She was pregnant and suicidal and needed hospitalization.”

Central State’s Powell Building will be mothballed, said Tom Wilson, communications director for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The 200 people who worked with mental health patients — out of about 2,000 employees on the campus — will have chances to take other jobs at the hospital or to transfer to other state facilities, he said.

According to Central State Hospital’s Web page, four years ago the adult mental health unit was admitting about 180 people each month to its 96 beds.

Those beds will be empty soon. By March 1, the state hopes to have the 30 or so mental health patients still on campus transferred somewhere else, or released.

Said Wilson: “We’re not going to put anybody back into a community that’s not ready to do that and doesn’t have the support they need.”

Milledgeville and Baldwin County have taken plenty of hits recently as state budget cuts closed two prisons and a youth development center. Two more area prisons are on the chopping block, and a partial shutdown at Central State is “not what Baldwin County needs to hear right now,” state Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, said Wednesday.

But Grant was hopeful that jobs will be found for hospital employees affected by the change. He hoped another use will be found for the Powell Building, a historic white building that dominates the main part of Central State’s campus. That’s something Wilson said the department is exploring.

But Grant was realistic about the way public mental health care is shifting in Georgia. The state’s goal is to treat more people in a community setting: getting them therapy and helping them find apartments and jobs instead of institutionalizing them for much of their lives. That means less need for large facilities such as Central State and more need for an urban environment with, for example, a strong public transportation system.

Milledgeville doesn’t fit those demographics, Grant acknowledged.

The partial shutdown affects only adult mental health care at the facility, and patients often rotate through that program relatively quickly, Grant said. They get treatment and are released, so the number of people in the program dwindled quickly when Central State started diverting new patients to other facilities, Wilson said.

“It brought up the question, ... ‘Are we at the point where we can just consolidate this at other hospitals?’’’ Wilson said.

Staff writer Mike Stucka contributed to this report.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.

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