The state-run mental health hospital has about 180 patients and 764 employees, according to Tom Wilson, spokesman for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
State Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, serves on the state’s Behavioral Health Coordinating Council.
She said the Rome facility is the only one immediately closing as part of a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding treatment of patients in the state’s seven psychiatric hospitals.
“But there’s certainly the requirement to deliver services differently in the future,” she said.
Wilson said the closure is part of a 5-year plan to move developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients to private settings and community-based services. The agreement lays aside a DOJ lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Closing NWGRH is expected to free up departmental funding to expand community-based services, but it came as a surprise to Dempsey and other Floyd County lawmakers, who were notified Wednesday.
State Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said she had expected at least a part of the facility to remain open to serve critical cases in the region.
“While I understand the move to community-based services, there are those who need supervision all the time,” she said. “More and more, folks with mental health needs are finding their way into our prison system. I’m concerned about not having enough support out there for those who need it.”
Initial plans called for the behavioral health commissioner Dr. Frank Shelp to meet with NWGRH staffers Tuesday to discuss their options, but the wintry weather intervened.
Dempsey said Labor Commissioner Mark Butler “has promised me the full resources of his department to help those employees.” At this point, she said, all positions are funded through June 30.
Local lawmakers also intend to ensure there is a smooth transition for the patients, although details were sketchy Thursday. The facility will stop accepting new admissions on April 1.
“These are things we’re going to have to stay very involved in,” Dempsey said. “There are plans for new programs, but there’s no date. I plan to hold the department’s feet to the fire; to make sure those employees and consumers are looked out for.”
Wilson said 54 of the current patients have been admitted to the mental health ward, and 73 patients admitted by a court. They will have to be moved to state hospitals in Milledgeville or Atlanta.
“Patients placed by the court system can’t just move out. They will be moved to other hospitals,” Wilson said.
The state’s move to privatize mental health care has outraged many people, including former state representative Buddy Childers of Floyd County.
Childers served as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee and was an advocate for the hospital during his tenure.
“It’s a shame that we worked so hard and so long to put so many dollars toward mental health to see it wiped away with the swipe of a pen,” Childers said. “I am sad for the clients, families and employees affected by this,” he said.
Childers said he would like to see the decision reversed.
Jim Moore, president of the National Alliance of Mental Illness in Rome, has questioned the decision to both close the facility and privatize mental health.
“Our concern is ‘will they have service in place to replace what’s being taken in a seamless transition and in a timely fashion?’” Moore said.
Hospital administrator Karl Schwarzkopf could not be reached for comment Thursday.
When a Rome News-Tribune reporter called Schwarzkopf, she was initially told he was in a meeting. When she identified herself as being with the Rome News-Tribune, she was then told he was not in.
The hospital was created 27 years ago to serve mentally ill and developmentally disabled patients in a 16-county region and programs expanded over time to serve patients in a 31 county region.
Ground was broken in April 1971 for the Redmond Road complex that replaced the 1940s-era military buildings of Battey State Hospital.
Lester Maddox, then the lieutenant governor, attended the ceremony that also drew about 35 picketers complaining the primary contractor on the $9.8 million project employed non-union labor.
The facility opened in 1974, adding mental patients to the tuberculosis patients treated at Battey.
By 1977, NWGRH was averaging 281 patients a day with a staff of 605 workers. There were 260 beds reserved for mental hospital patients and the number of beds for tubercular patients dropped to 50 from 80. The inpatient tuberculosis unit was phased out in the 1990s.
In October 2010, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and the U.S. Justice Department announced an agreement that Perdue said avoided direct federal control of the system and set concrete goals for substituting community-based services.
In the announcement, Perdue said the state would stop admitting developmentally disabled people into state hospitals by July 2011 and clear all remaining patients by July 2015.
The state also owns six other mental health hospitals: Georgia Regional Hospital at Atlanta; Georgia Regional Hospital at Savannah; Central State Hospital, Milledgeville; Southwestern State Hospital, Thomasville; West Central Georgia Regional Hospital, Columbus; and East Central Regional Hospital, Augusta.
Staff writer Diane Wagner contributed to this report
Have you ever worked at Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital? Send us your memories of your time at the hospital. You can e-mail romenewstribune@RN-T.com. Put “NWGRH Memories” in the subject line.
For the complete settlement agreement click here.
For a recent report on planned changes to the mental health system click here.