By Asm. Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. (D-Middlesex)
Hubert Humphrey once said “that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
When it comes to Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital, the Christie administration has failed that moral test.
This 300-bed hospital in Hunterdon County with specialized geriatric care is one of our more cost-efficient state-run facilities.
Given its significance, the legislature created the State Mental Health Facilities Evaluation Task Force to study the Governor’s recommended closure of Hagedorn. I had the privilege of serving on the task force along with 20 other members from across the state with varying backgrounds.
In analyzing the issue, the task force held three separate public hearings in the north, central and southern part of our state. In the end, 53 people provided testimony, 40 of whom were in favor of keeping the hospital open and only 13 of whom supported its closure.
The recurring sentiments offered up during hours of testimony were that Hagedorn is a well-run facility that provides unique care, including specialized equipment such as wall oxygen and suction machines, and a physical layout that meets the needs of older adults, including elevators, ramps and wide doors.
After lengthy hearings, questioning and analysis, we issued our final report to the Governor and the Legislature, which expressly noted that, “The Task Force was unable to reach consensus regarding whether Hagedorn should close. At the last meeting, a vote was taken with ten members in favor of keeping the hospital open and seven supporting the closure.”
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence and support for keeping the hospital open, the Governor has unilaterally decided to move forward with closing it down.
To eliminate this type of specialized care for some of the most fragile citizens in our state, just to save $9 million in a roughly $30 billion budget, is unconscionable.
The needs of geriatric patients are unique and wholly unlike younger patients with mental health needs. Most younger patients have illnesses that can be treated with therapy and medication and many succeed at becoming partly or largely independent, enabling them to be placed in community residences.
On the other hand, elderly patients, many of whom suffer from illnesses such as dementia, have conditions that will only grow progressively worse. Many community-based housing options lack the appropriate supervision, medical or otherwise, and would be ill-advised for their unique conditions.
With the Governor’s additional cuts for mental health services, and the baby boomer population increasing in age, our mental health system is strained to the brink.
Just recently, a news report detailed the ungodly conditions at many boarding homes throughout the state that house people with mental illnesses and seniors with dementia. Bed bugs, mice infestations, noxious odors and expired food were just some of the unsanitary conditions found by inspectors, along with safety issues such as broken fire detectors and a lack of carbon monoxide detectors.
This could very likely become the scenario many Hagedorn patients are confronted with due to an overcrowded mental health system.
Our most vulnerable population deserves the best protection, we can provide. Extraordinary fiscal times require everyone to pitch in and sacrifice. But what does it say about our state if we callously consign senior citizens to such hellacious conditions in order to save a few dollars?
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