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Proposed Spring Grove sale raises concerns over privatization of mental health services

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, said the proposed closure of Spring Grove and other facilities is an effort by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to privatize union jobs. (The Daily Record/Bryan P. Sears)

A proposed sale of the site that is home to a state psychiatric hospital is raising concerns about the privatization of those services. 

The Board of Public Works is scheduled to take up a proposal by the Maryland Department of Health to sell the Spring Grove State Hospital to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, said the proposed closure of Spring Grove and other facilities is an effort by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to privatize union jobs. 

UPDATE: Md. board approves sale of Spring Grove Hospital campus to UMBC

“He promised when he ran in 2014 that he’d cut waste, fraud and abuse,” Moran said. “That translated to cutting state employees. Those employees are not waste, fraud and abuse.” 

Moran said the effort to find “strategic partnerships” to take over the state’s mental health services “is code for privatization.” 

The health department wants to sell the aging and deteriorating Catonsville property that includes close to 80 buildings on nearly 180 acres at UMBC. 

A state health department spokesman issued a statement in lieu of making a health department official available for an interview. 

“Spring Grove Hospital Center will remain open and MDH’s delivery of hospital services to our patients will be unaffected for the foreseeable future,” said Chase Cook, a health department spokesman. “The primary purpose of this transfer to UMBC is to allow UMBC to begin their planning process and support both MDH and UMBC in long-range facilities development. 

Cook said “clinical employee jobs will not be directly affected during this transition period.” 

Lisa Akchin, a spokeswoman for the university, said there are no immediate plans for the property. 

“The transfer of the property from state agency to state agency at this time would support both MDH and UMBC in long-range facilities development,” Akchin said. 

Planning for use of the property will begin next year, she said. 

Moran is hoping two Democrats on the board — Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Dereck Davis — will block the sale. 

Davis did not respond to a request for comment. 

A spokeswoman for Franchot said the comptroller doesn’t discuss pending votes. She said Franchot has a number of questions about the sale. 

“I am continuing to review this proposal and engage with stakeholders ahead of Wednesday’s meeting,” Franchot said in a statement Monday. “At the outset, however, I was surprised by the lack of transparency and community engagement, as well as the process associated with this proposal. I am especially concerned by the impact of this property transfer on the availability of affordable access to comprehensive psychiatric health services that are currently offered at Spring Grove Hospital, which thousands depend on every year. I look forward to getting answers to these very serious questions and concerns.” 

Spring Grove was first opened in 1797. It is the second-oldest such facility in continuous operation in the nation. 

The current facility houses roughly 377 in-patient beds. The bulk of the beds are used by adults who have been deemed by the courts to be incompetent to stand trial. 

Moran said as many as 200 people are awaiting placement in the forensic beds. The number he said was based on a review provided by union members who are employees in the state hospital system. 

That estimate could not be immediately verified. 

“The state continues to work on reducing admissions times for patients determined incompetent to stand trial with our Judiciary partners,” said Cook, who provided no details on the current backlog. 

A 2021 review of facilities by the health department found the property and its buildings to be unsuitable for use as a psychiatric hospital. The costs of repairs or replacement buildings was unfeasible. 

That report contained a plan in which the state would continue to maintain and operate Spring Grove and a number of other similar hospitals statewide. The plan called for “divestiture of non-operating facilities, identification of strategic partnerships to transition services with community health care providers and construction of capital projects.” 

One of those projects includes a facility that would be run by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. 

The legislature thwarted the closure of two similar facilities in western Maryland by cutting funding from the budget that takes effect July 1. 

“We delayed that,” said Del. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery and a member of both the House Appropriations Committee and House chair of the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Behavioral Health and Opioid Use Disorders. “We held it off for a year because we thought it would be unfair to saddle the next administration with the plan.” 

Reznik said the state “needs more beds, not fewer.” 

Money for the correctional services facility was left in the budget. 

The university would buy the property from the health department for $1 — the price set by a state appraiser. There was no independent appraisal. 

The department would lease back the property from the university for $1 for an initial 10 years with two, five-year renewal options each for $1. The plan would be to continue to use it as a psychiatric hospital until it is ultimately closed sometime over the next decade. 

The sale price has raised questions since the state has sold off other parcels of the property — some of which remain undeveloped — for millions. 

In 2014, the state sold a nearly nine-acre parcel to Baltimore County for more than $1.32 million. The property was earmarked as recreational park space. 

The Health Department has been the subject of lawsuits and a court order related to delays in moving those found incompetent to stand trial from jails to psychiatric hospitals. 

In 2017, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge held then acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader in contempt of an order to open and staff 60 additional beds. The Court of Appeals later threw out the contempt ruling saying Schrader and the department, while slow to do so, ultimately complied with the circuit court judge’s order. 

But lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation that required the department to admit patients within 10 days. Mary Pizzo, supervising attorney for the forensic mental health division of the Office of the Public Defender, said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state “improved slightly.” 

“There’s always a backlog,” said Pizzo, adding that in some cases an attorney would call because a client was approaching the 30-day window. “I’ve always got that contempt filing in my back pocket. By the time we were ready to file for contempt, (the patient) had been admitted.” 

Pizzo could neither confirm nor deny the union’s estimate of patients waiting for placement. She said that number could include patients in a number of different situations including those who have been released from jail, but ordered to undergo an evaluation. 

Pizzo described the Spring Grove facility as “pretty run down” but said she didn’t know where patients would go if Spring Grove and other state facilities closed. 

“That really is a good question,” Pizzo said. “I have no idea. There just aren’t enough private beds to accommodate the need and do (private facilities) really want to accommodate those patients when they really don’t have the security (to do so)?”