Lost in the debate over whether to close Crownsville Hospital Center or one of the other two state mental institutions in Central Maryland is the fate of the people these facilities are intended to serve -- the severely mentally ill.
At a hearing last month in Annapolis, the clear sentiment was to keep Crownsville open. Some residents fear that if the hospital is closed, bureaucrats will find other less desirable uses for the property. Crownsville is also a large employer, so workers are concerned about their jobs. But the needs of the community and employees must be secondary to those of the patients.
In keeping with its program of placing mentally ill in community treatment programs, the Mental Hygiene Administration is considering closing one of the three state hospitals in the Baltimore region -- Crownsville, Springfield in Carroll County or Spring Grove in Baltimore County.
A task force released a draft report last winter that recommended closing one of the three centers by the year 2000, but did not name which one should be shuttered. The task force has been holding hearings, which have drawn more than 400 people in the Baltimore area to date. The task force is expected to make further recommendations later this year.
Among the conditions the task force set for closing any of these facilities is that the various non-profit organizations that provide service to patients when they leave the hospitals must be functioning effectively to oversee the transition of patients to community settings. But many observers at the various hearings said they fear that requirement is far from being achieved.
Before the task force can specify closing any of these facilities it must determine that the core service agencies are able to accommodate the needs of the mentally ill in the community. At the hearing in Annapolis, former patients and other supporters defended Crownsville as a service to patients from five counties, with the second-largest patient base in the state.
Before drastic changes proceed, state mental health officials must come up with a detailed, viable program to ensure that shutting one of these hospitals will not thrust patients into communities ill-prepared to serve them.