MANDEVILLE, La. -- The clock is ticking for a mental hospital in St. Tammany Parish, but the community around Southeast Louisiana Hospital is fighting hard to jam up the hands of time.
The state says cuts to Medicaid are forcing the closure of the 60-year-old facility.
DHH said a phase down will start Oct. 1. The first step is to send more than 90 long-term patients to other facilities across the state, and to find private facilities to take on short-term care.
The agency said the goal is for those facilities to be in the Northshore and New Orleans areas. There is no current plan for other services currently housed on the campus, which include an alternative school that’s part of the St. Tammany Parish School System, a group home for children and the National Alliance for Mental Illness.
However, more than 100 people who turned out to a “Speak Out” in support of the hospital Wednesday night, at the Community Center in Mandeville, say they’re not buying the state’s story for the facility’s fate, and are doing anything they can to stop it.
A mother and daughter in attendance say they’re standing up for the hospital because it’s helped one of them improve mentally, and brought both of them closer.
"I was going through depression and anxiety and paranoia," said Robin Bass, a patient at SELH for two years. "And since I've been at the hospital, my medications are better and I'm not paranoid or scared and I have my mom back in my life."
Her mother, Janice Sapier, said, "To know that there's other people, even in prison, who shouldn't be, because of addiction, because of mental issues, it hurts me very much."
Northshore leaders at the meeting say their attempts to compromise, including offering local dollars to keep extra programs that address mental illness on the campus, have been brushed aside.
State leaders, like Treasurer John Kennedy, say the administration claims this is a money-saving move, but there’s proof otherwise, including in state contracts paying for coordinators of recess programs and promotions for Chimpanzee Day, as well as plans to build a brand new public hospital in Central Louisiana.
DHH says, “Our leadership team has been engaged in an ongoing discussion with local leaders and the legislative delegation. These conversations have been very positive and clearly demonstrate that we share a mutual commitment to the people of Louisiana. The bottom line is that we will work to not only preserve behavioral health capacity through this transition, we are working with local partners and our statewide managing organization for behavioral health to open new capacity for levels of care not currently available to our residents.”
In reference to the $500,000 offer from St. Tammany Parish’s public health millage, DHH spokeswoman Meghan Speakes said the agency did not turn it down because it never received an offer to turn it down. And the new hospital in the works, Speakes said, is still fluid, but part of Capital Outlay allocations, which can only be used for physical assets or improvements and is a one-time expenditure.
But the people that care for the patients and run the campus day in and day out simply say what they do matters, and no one is taking into consideration the cost of eliminating their services, which they say will likely be, for both patients and employees, an increase in unemployment, crime and homelessness.
"That affects not only the employees, but parents ought to be very panicky,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hierowski, a child psychiatrist at SELH, “What will happen to their children?"
Supporters maintain the decision to close Southeast is a colossal mistake and they will fight until the bitter end to keep it going. Part of that is pushing legislators to call a special session to address the recent cuts to health care.
An attorney general’s opinion into the authority of the closure is still pending.