Weekly Feature

2017-12-07 / Front Page

Veto override last hope of Children’s Psychiatric Center

Lawmakers push for special session to stop merger with Buffalo Psychiatric Center

A bill to keep the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center as a standalone facility, stopping its merger with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, was vetoed last week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

(See editorial on page four)

At nearly midnight on Nov. 29, word came that the governor had rejected the bill, which unanimously passed both the Senate and Assembly. Now, lawmakers are working to override the veto.

“I’m disappointed and I’m troubled for a number of different reasons,” said Sen. Patrick Gallivan following the veto.

On Nov. 30, Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, a former assemblyman, requested a special session to override the veto.

“As you know, the Assembly and Senate unanimously passed this bill earlier this year. Also, legally this is not a contraction of the facility but rather a discontinuance, which requires the vote of both houses under Mental Hygiene Law 7.11 and 7.17,” Kearns said in a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Kearns said the veto did not specify a reason for the closure and the governor’s claiming that $3 million will be saved by the change is not justifiable when the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center has the lowest 30- and 90-day readmission rates, scored 99.9 percent by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations and is ranked among the top 10 percent of any psychiatric facility in the United States.

“Calling a special session for this unique piece of legislation is warranted and would be most welcome to the 19 counties this facility serves,” Kearns said.

Gallivan noted that there has not been a successful veto override since 2006.

“If you look at the record of the Legislature in overriding various governors, you would not put the chances as good,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

The senator added that he doesn’t know of a time when a single legislator called to convene a special session to discuss overriding a governor’s veto, based both on the merits of the subject at hand and on the disregard of the community’s will.

“I’ve questioned myself over the past five years whether I’m taking the right position or not, and I’m 100 percent convinced that I am,” Gallivan said.

Experts in the mental health field, along with parents, patients and the community, believe that the model used in the facility in West Seneca is the best one for the mental health care of children, and that services will diminish if the two facilities become collocated, the senator said.

Since 2012 when the Children’s Psychiatric Center was initially removed from the state budget, legislators and advocates have fought to keep the center open in West Seneca as a separate and distinct facility for the treatment of children with severe mental illness.

In 2015, it was announced that the center would be closed and it would merge with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

A restraining order was issued in July of this year as an attempt to halt construction at the Buffalo site.

“Numerous hearings were held. The Office of Mental Health held a number of forums where the public was invited to speak — the various stakeholders. The Legislature held hearings,” Galli- van said. “At every one of them, and I attended all of them, there were patients and former patients. There were family members of people who were current patients or former patients; workers, those that work at the Children’s Psychiatric Center, current and past; mental health experts; mental health organizations. Not one of them agreed with the commissioner of the Office of Mental Health and what their plan was to move forward.”

Once efforts to merge the two facilities continued, Gallivan said legislation was drafted to keep the children’s center as a freestanding facility.

“This legislation passed both the Senate and the Assembly unanimously. Democrats and Republicans. Legislators from every corner of the state were concerned, looked at the evidence and stood up and said, ‘These are our children who need these services, who are getting the best services, and it should stay this way,’” he said.

Since that time, more than 16,000 signatures from people across Western New York have been obtained in support of stopping the merger. These signatures were submitted to the governor alongside the bill.

“In our representative government I’m very troubled,” Gallivan said. “Everybody — the experts speaking the merits, the community standing up based on this saying they want it a certain way, the Legislature representing them, honoring their wishes — I’m troubled that the Commissioner of Mental Health and the governor unilaterally have dictated to all of us that they know better, and that’s just simply wrong.”

Gallivan said the governor’s veto message is misleading and inaccurate in the facts stated and the potential impact of the merger.

Claims of a “state of the art facility” in the message is misinformation, Gallivan said, given that there is no new facility being built.

“They are renovating four floors of an institutional building,” he said.

The veto message said the stakeholders have been involved during the process, but Gallivan said despite the transparency of the process, the public has not been given a say in changes that will be made.

“They told [the public] what they were going to do, and when people stood up and said it was not good enough, their plans continued going forward,” Gallivan said.

“The commissioner, to her credit, recognizes and is trying to fulfill the responsibility to provide additional community based mental health services for children and their families. We have a need for that. We should be doing that, but we shouldn’t be taking away something that’s good,” he said.

Rather than eliminating a facility that is effective, Gallivan said the Legislature should fund the necessary services.

The day following the veto, Kearns announced he will be joining a lawsuit against the governor.

“I am utterly disappointed by Gov. Cuomo’s decision to veto legislation that would have kept the WNY Children’s Psychiatric Center open in West Seneca, he said. “We don’t need hindsight to see that moving this facility, to the same campus as adult psychiatric patients, downtown in a busy urban environment, will be a colossal mistake and detrimental to the health and well-being of children seeking these valuable services.”

Kearns led the fight against the closure and merging of the center during his tenure as an assemblyman in the 142nd District, a fight he said will continue in his new position as Erie County clerk.

Gallivan said his legislative staff in Albany has asked for an analysis of the lawsuit being brought against the governor and the commissioner.

While this is a separate issue, and the senator said he is unsure at this time whether he will be joining the effort, he is grateful to those who are standing up for the cause.

“We have looked at this and done what we could legislatively, and that now includes trying to pursue a veto. If ultimately we are unsuccessful with that, part of our analysis will be, if we think it has merits and it’s appropriate for me to join in or not join in the lawsuit,” he said.

email: jwaters@beenews.com

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