Valdosta Daily Times

May 23, 2013

Southwestern State Hospital to close

Patti Dozier
The Thomasville Times-Enterprise

THOMASVILLE — One of Thomas County’s largest employers — at more than 700 people — and a longtime regional state mental hospital will close Dec. 31.

Frank Berry, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Development Disabilities commissioner, met with a portion of Southwestern State Hospital employees at 8 a.m. Wednesday and would meet with two other personnel groups later in the day to announce the closing.

It was standing room only during the 8 a.m. announcement.

“This is awful,” a hospital employee said afterward, adding that she was not supposed to be talking to a Times-Enterprise reporter and had to return to work.

Grim-faced employees stood in small groups in the administration building lobby and talked before returning to their jobs.

Berry said the hospital closing is not based on the quality of care administered at the facility.

“The services that have been delivered here have been absolutely incredible,” he said.

The closing is “data-driven,” based on where patients live, Berry explained. SWSH patients are primarily from Thomas County, Valdosta and Albany.

Berry said he believes strongly that services should be available “closer to home.”

Community services are being provided, with fewer hospital services required.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice, DBHDD and the Georgia Department of Community Health entered a settlement agreement regarding the administration of services to individuals with developmental disabilities who live in state hospitals, including SWSH. The agreement requires the state to transition the individuals from state hospitals into community-based settings of their choice.

Thomas County has four community-based group homes. An additional 28 to 30 will be needed.

Those with developmental disabilities — “all of them” — must be moved into communities by 2015, Berry explained.

“Dollars-and-cents challenges” also played a role in the hospital closing, the commissioner said.

Southwestern averages 50 patients with a $35 million annual budget. Berry said that as patients with developmental disabilities leave the facility, so does federal funding, resulting in operating a 50-patient hospital at an annual cost of $27 million.

The DBHDD chief said the situation could not continue.

Southwestern employs more than 600 people full time and 136 in part-time positions.

The commissioner said DBHDD will work with displaced employees to secure long-term jobs. The employees will be asked to serve in community-based facilities, rather than in hospitals.

Crisis stabilization units will be located in Thomasville, Valdosta and Albany to serve the mentally ill.

Heads of new agencies to be established in the wake of Southwestern closing have been asked to give SWSH employees preference. “And they’ve agreed to,” Berry said.

The goal is for hospital employees to continue to serve, but not in a hospital setting, the commissioner told The Times-Enterprise.

The 400 South Pinetree Boulevard Southwestern campus encompasses 64 acres and includes about a dozen buildings.

Some buildings could be used for outpatient services, such as those offered by Georgia Pines, a state facility, Berry said.

Or the property could be sold to a private-sector entity.

SWSH has a bond debt that would have to be addressed by the state or a private buyer in a sale, said Jeff Minor, DBHDD deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.

“There are some hoops to go through,” Minor said.

A sale would be handled by the State Property Commission.

Berry, DBHDD commissioner since August 2012, has seriously studied the Southwestern situation for nine months. His decision to close the hospital was made during the last 45 days.

State hospitals remain open in Atlanta, Columbus, Augusta and Savannah, along with a couple of units at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.

A state mental hospital at Rome closed, and only one unit will remain open at Central State after Dec. 31.