Changes in regional mental health care outlined in Savannah

SAVANNAH -- Savannah and Columbus will split $6.5 million in new state money to remake Georgia Regional Hospital campuses and programs in each city as part of the state's new mental health system.


Georgia Department of Human Resources officials said Monday that both hospitals will join the effort, which is expected to free money for additional investments in the mental health system.

The money will be spent to replace the bed-based hospital system with community-based programs to treat mental health patients in both cities, said Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker.

View a pdf of the state's plan for a new mental health system.

"Right now our mental health system is not working well," Walker told members of the Savannah Morning News editorial board.

"This is the right plan to fix it."

Mrs. Walker, with other state mental health officials, visited several Savannah groups to outline what she said was an "evolving plan."

Part of the visit, Mrs. Walker said, was designed to deal with what she called "a lot of urban rumor" surrounding the plan.

The "game plan" envisions saving $50 million over four years to flow back into the system.

The $6.5 million in new money resulted from efforts last year by the Georgia General Assembly and represents budget cuts from the initial $11 million that was allocated.

Georgia Regional at Savannah will remain an operating hospital with fewer than its current 120 beds and many of its 430 employees expected to remain in place.

Instead of having as many hospital beds, it will replace them with such efforts as crisis-stabilization beds, an effort known as an Assertive Community Treatment program, social detoxification programs and intensive treatment residences, most of them on the hospital's campus.

Regional hospital administrator Charles Li said those programs are already coming on line with hospital beds being phased out as they take effect.

"We are implementing as it evolves," Mrs. Walker said.

The regional hospital in Columbus is expected to undergo similar changes.

The new plan will replace Georgia's seven aging psychiatric hospitals as part of a move to more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of the state's mentally ill, said Gwen Skinner, director of the department dealing with those issues.

She addressed a group of stakeholders Monday morning during a meeting at Memorial University Medical Center.

Ms. Skinner said the state's seven mental hospitals are between 40 and 150 years old and will require $30 million in upkeep by 2012.

Nor were they designed for today's patients.

And, Ms. Skinner said, even if fixed, those hospitals will provide no additional services.

Community-based mental health services, including mobile crisis programs, will replace hospitalization.

"This is not going to be perfect," Mrs. Walker told the group. "I'm not trying to solve all the mental health problems of the world ... or Georgia. I can't do that."

But, she said, the plan's savings of a projected $50 million over four years will free money for future investment in the system.

"It generates so many dollars it would be almost criminal not to try to do that."

She called it a "pragmatic approach" to provide a "footprint of what can be grown."

"This is one of those rare opportunities where you actually have the money in hand," Mrs. Walker said.

Bill Daniel, incoming board chairman at Memorial Health, parent company for Memorial, said the plan will hurt folks in "the other Georgia."

"This is going to make things worse for us in this part of the state," he said. "Things will be worse here. Tragedies will occur here. ... Our jails will be overcrowded."

State Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, asked about an alternative.

"Why can't we take something in between ... that would serve the people of Savannah?" Mr. Johnson said.

Ms. Skinner said intensive treatment beds are not being eliminated but are being consolidated in planned new hospitals at Rome and Augusta.

That service shouldn't be shut down while something new is being built, said Dr. William Ellen, chairman and medical director at Memorial's Department of Psychiatry & The Center for Behavioral Medicine.

"We lose these beds, we lose the intensive care we have. We can't be closing these beds."


View a pdf of the state's plan for a new mental health system.




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