Barring action by the General Assembly to prevent the closure of Crownsville Hospital Center, the state's top health officials said yesterday that they will shut down the psychiatric complex as early as July.
"Ideally, I'd like to see it July 1," Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said after a subcommittee hearing in the state Senate.
Employee union officials said it was the firmest declaration they had heard from Sabatini and his top aides. He first proposed closing the 94-year-old hospital in October.
But Sabatini said his statements should not come as a surprise. The proposed budget issued Wednesday by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. calls for shutting Crownsville and moving its patients to other state facilities.
"If it's not closed, then we've got a $12 million hole" in the budget, Sabatini said.
The proposal to close Crownsville, located on Generals Highway in central Anne Arundel County, followed years of talk about shutting one the state's "big three" psychiatric hospitals, and health officials promoted it as both a cost-saving measure and a way to provide more effective care.
Over the past 21 years, the capacity of the state mental health hospital system, which includes large hospitals and smaller treatment centers, has dwindled from 4,390 beds to 1,204. That has led the state to consider closing Crownsville, Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville or Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.
In October, Sabatini selected Crownsville, once a hospital for only African-Americans. The plan to close it would save the state $12 million in operating money next fiscal year, Sabatini said yesterday. Of that money, $5 million would be diverted to community mental health services. Another nearly $1 million would pay for renovations to increase capacity at Spring Grove.
Spring Grove and Crownsville were seeking about $100 million each for renovations in the long term.
The secretary said he has moved slowly toward closure since receiving letters from legislators last fall in favor of it. He said he has avoided making any moves that cannot be reversed in case legislators block the plan.
He has put a freeze on hiring at other mental facilities to free up positions for Crownsville employees, and he has not begun expansion projects at those facilities.
Officially, the General Assembly cannot prevent Crownsville from closing, but Sabatini has said all along that he would work with lawmakers.
Some of the groups fighting to stave off Crownsville's demise voiced their concerns at yesterday's hearing of the Senate Budget and Taxation subcommittee on health and human services.
"We're going to try to block it," said Sue Esty, the legislative director of AFSCME Council 92 employees union.
Sabatini said he will do everything within his power to find jobs for the 131 hospital employees whose positions would be eliminated.