As the nation continues to grapple with the far-reaching effects of coronavirus, I am continually inspired by the strength and resilience of our Ulster County community in responding to this crisis. Our heroic healthcare professionals — nurses, doctors, first responders — continue to provide life-saving care to those fighting the virus, standing up medical treatment sites, and much more. Their selfless efforts have put themselves at great personal risk as they deliver compassionate and professional care to our residents since the very first case of Covid-19 appeared in our region.
However, as the pandemic has continued and pressure has grown on everyone across our community, we’ve also seen an alarming spike in mental-health and substance-abuse issues. We cannot allow the Covid pandemic to detract from our efforts to address the equally critical opioid and mental-health crises impacting our county. Now more than ever, we must bolster our behavioral health services and resources. That is why I am calling on HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley to fully and immediately reactivate the inpatient behavioral health beds that they closed earlier this year.
In late 2019, we ceremoniously broke ground on a $92.9-million retrofit of HealthAlliance’s Mary’s Avenue campus, primarily funded by New York State, and celebrated a future vision of a new world-class health center that will serve Ulster County and the wider region. A key part of that vision was HealthAlliance’s explicit commitment to offering behavioral health services in the new facility.
Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has upended lives and best-laid plans. In early April, HealthAlliance shut down 40 inpatient mental health beds and 20 beds dedicated to chemical dependency and detoxification to make room for a potential regional Covid-19 specialized care center. We were assured at the time that this would be a temporary move and that there was a well-conceived plan to ensure our community continued to receive vital behavioral-health services.
Six months later, it’s clear that both of those promises have been broken. My office has received dozens of calls from families who are confused, angry, and not able to get the care they need for their loved ones. Longtime nurses and staff have been laid off or forced to work in far-flung locations. And, most disturbingly, HealthAlliance has now made clear that they have no intention of returning any of these inpatient beds.
I warned several months ago in a letter to Michael Israel, CEO of the Westchester Medical Center system, that the loss of these critical behavioral health services in Ulster County would prove “utterly devastating to our community.” Tragically, these fears have proven true. In the last six months, we’ve seen fatalities due to any substance use (including opioids) is up 91 percent in the period January to August 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 (22 in 2019, 42 in 2020). Additionally, since March to July there has been a doubling in suicide deaths (eight in 2019 compared to 16 in 2020).
Permanently closing these inpatient beds, especially in the middle of a surging opioid and mental-health crisis precipitated by a once-in-a-century pandemic, is completely unacceptable and will only compound the tragic surge we’re already experiencing. This destructive move comes after HealthAlliance received over $90 million in taxpayer-funded support.
I fervently reject the removal of these services and am calling on HealthAlliance to act quickly to honor its commitment to ensuring our community’s health and safety and bring back these services immediately. As we continue to see a dramatic rise in mental-health issues and substance abuse as a result of the pandemic, now more than ever we must guarantee that all residents have ample access to vital local services and come together to ensure our community is receiving the support it desperately needs and deserves.
Pat Ryan is Ulster County Executive.
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