Fate of medical center's psychiatric unit undecided 'Serious' questions probed by state

June 15, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

The closing of Anne Arundel Medical Center's 12-bed psychiatric unit may not be the done deal administrators had expected when they stopped taking patients there five weeks ago.

Although the Annapolis hospital asked the state's permission to close the unit April 21, the state agency regulating hospital services has delayed its decision, said a spokeswoman, based on "weighty and serious" questions raised at a public hearing May 18.

"Normally, there would be a decision within 45 days," said Susan P. Panek, spokeswoman for the Maryland Health Resources Planning Commission. "We had serious enough questions to hold this up. At this point, I would say it's not a done deal."

After the public hearing, at which mental health professionals and former patients testified against the closing, the commission sent the hospital a letter inquiring into six areas of concern, Ms. Panek said.

Since then, she said, the commission has received another 25 letters, from professionals and former patients, asking that the unit be kept open. The county chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI) submitted a petition opposing the closing with about 100 signatures, she said.

"This is usually pretty pro forma, but in this case, there's been so much public testimony, we decided to ask for additional information," Ms. Panek said.

Hospital spokeswoman Nancy L. Hemby said AAMC has compiled its responses to the commission's questions, which it will forward this week. She would not comment on specifics of the report, she said, because the administrators who wrote it were not available.

"At this point, we're just trying to work with the commission as best as we can," she said, adding that the hospital is still committed to closing the unit, which opened in 1978. Hospital administrators say it is not needed, pointing to low admissions over the past few years.

"We've been running at about 5.3 patients average, or about 42 percent capacity," said Betty Schweitzer, vice president of Patient Care Services for the medical center. Other hospitals "could pretty easily absorb the patients."

North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie, which has a 19-bed psychiatric unit, will take some of the medical center's patients, as will Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick, she said.

Advocates for keeping the unit open, including Arthur M. Warwick, its former director, said it has been low on patients because the hospital has not tried to make it a success.

Although the unit was originally mandated by the state as part of an agreement allowing the hospital to expand the number of medical and surgical beds, it has never been set up to take involuntary patients, which advocates say is the greatest need.

By taking only voluntary admissions, or those patients who want to be hospitalized, the medical center has excluded most patients, keeping admissions numbers artificially low, advocates said.

Ms. Panek said the commission has questions about the way the unit was run, including the decision not to admit involuntary patients, and whether it was "properly marketed" to the community.

"The county population is growing, and we wondered whether there's been any attempt to forecast what the needs might be in the future," she said. "Have they taken steps to assure the patients can be accommodated elsewhere?"

"This is a county of 450,000 people and we have one hospital with 19 beds -- that's ridiculous," said Thomas M. Schulz, president of the county's AMI.

Mr. Schulz said a county study shows there are at least 8,300 seriously mentally ill people living in Arundel, and mental health advocates think that is probably a low estimate.

"What you've got here is many families having to send their relatives out of the county since there's no room at the inn," he said.

"Anne Arundel Medical Center took a fait accompli attitude toward this. They shut it down first and then had a hearing," Mr. Schulz said. "I think the state is listening to what we have to say. I have hopes they will reverse the decision, in the interest of patients and the county at large."

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