Lane County, Ore., to Close Eugene Hospital

From the Knight Ridder Tribune Business News [Washington], January 26, 2004

Lane County will close its 16-year-old psychiatric hospital at the end of March, affecting as many as 400 acutely mentally ill patients who occupy its 12 beds each year.

County officials made the announcement Friday afternoon, citing cumulative effects of the failure of Measure 28 one year ago, which forced millions of dollars in cuts to state and local budgets, including public health and mental health services.

But they emphasized that the fate of Measure 30 on the Feb. 3 ballot will have no effect on their decision to close the Eugene hospital, located at 151 W. Fifth Ave. in a wing off the lobby at the Lane County Jail.

Last year’s post-Measure 28 budget cuts ended outpatient mental health benefits for people with the Oregon Health Plan’s standard coverage, forcing local psychiatric facilities to absorb the cost of treating those patients to avoid turning them away, said Rob Rockstroh, head of health and human services in the county. In addition, state reimbursement for inpatient treatment pays only about half of the cost of hospitalization, pushing deficits even higher.

To make matters worse, eligibility for mental health hospitalization coverage used to begin on the day a patient entered the facility, but the state changed the rules after voters rejected Measure 28, delaying reimbursement for 30 days after the patient signs up for coverage. It also quit paying local hospitals to treat patients on waiting lists for admission to a state facility.

That means the county simply can’t afford to keep its hospital, the only publicly funded psychiatric hospital in the state, open any longer, Rockstroh said.

“You just can’t run a hospital without money,” he said. “Our deficit would have reached $800,000 by the end of June. We decided if we were going to have to close, rather than eating up all our mental health funds, sooner would be better.”

Two other hospitals in the Portland area recently shut down a total of 36 psychiatric beds because of similar budget woes, Rockstroh said.

Al Levine, manager of the county’s mental health programs, said the closure will force even more mentally ill people to seek assistance at emergency rooms, putting greater financial pressure on area hospitals to write off the cost of indigent care.

“I can’t help but believe we will feel and see the results in the community,” Levine said. “The emergency room will become even more a lifeline for a lot of mentally ill people — when you go there with a child with a broken leg, you will sit and wait for a long time.”

PeaceHealth, which contracted with the county to operate the Lane County Psychiatric Hospital, has the area’s only other psychiatric ward in the 36-bed Johnson Unit within its Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Sandra Scheetz, who has administered the county’s facility for PeaceHealth for eight years, said the effect of the closure “will be terrible.”

The Johnson Unit nearly always operates at 90 percent capacity or more and “has no capacity to manage the additional flow,” Scheetz said.

Besides, the facility in the jail could handle violent patients whom other hospitals can’t because of the special training of its staff and the proximity of sheriff’s deputies to help with safety issues, she said.

“The Lane County Psychiatric Hospital served some of the most psychiatrically ill people in this community,” Scheetz said. “The loss of these 12 beds — especially with the trickle-down effect of the closures in Portland — will reverberate around the state.”

County officials will be scrambling between now and the end of March to try to find alternative ways to help mentally ill clients, such as opening a community crisis center or “buying” bed space in other communities that have vacancies, Rockstroh said.

Most of the hospital’s 42 employees, who already work for PeaceHealth, will be absorbed into the staff at Sacred Heart as positions come open, Scheetz said.