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

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran 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 plan to sell the site which houses a public psychiatric hospital raises concerns about the privatization of these services.

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

“He promised when he ran in 2014 that he would reduce fraud and wasteful abuse,” Moran said. “This has resulted in the reduction of state employees. These employees are not waste, fraud and abuse.

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

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

A state health department spokesperson released a statement instead of making a health department official available for an interview.

“The Spring Grove Hospital Center will remain open and MDH’s delivery of hospital services to our patients will not be affected for the foreseeable future,” said Chase Cook, spokesperson for the health department. “The main purpose of this transfer to UMBC is to allow UMBC to begin its planning process and to support both MDH and UMBC in the development of long-term facilities.

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

University spokeswoman Lisa Akchin said there were no immediate plans for the property.

“Transferring ownership from state agency to state agency at this time would support both MDH and UMBC in developing long-term facilities,” Akchin said.

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

Moran hopes 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 does not discuss pending votes. She said Franchot had a number of questions about the sale.

“I continue to review this proposal and engage with stakeholders ahead of Wednesday’s meeting,” Franchot said in a statement Monday. “Initially, however, I was surprised by the lack of transparency and community engagement, as well as the process associated with this proposal. I am particularly concerned about the impact of this transfer of ownership on the availability of affordable access to the comprehensive psychiatric health services that are currently offered at Spring Grove Hospital, upon which thousands of people depend each 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 continuously operating such facility in the country.

The current facility houses approximately 377 inpatient beds. The bulk of the beds are used by adults who have been found by the courts to be unfit to stand trial.

Moran said as many as 200 people were waiting to be placed in the forensic beds. The number, he said, was based on a review provided by union members who are employees of the state hospital system.

This estimate could not be immediately verified.

“The state continues to work to reduce timelines for admissions of patients deemed unfit to stand trial with our court partners,” said Cook, who did not provide details on the current backlog.

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

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

One of these projects includes a facility that would be managed by the Ministry 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,” Del said. Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery and Member of the House Appropriations Committee and Chairman of the House Chairman of the Joint Committee on Behavioral Health and Opioid Use Disorders. “We delayed it for a year because we thought it would be unfair to hand the plan over to the next administration.”

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

The money for the establishment of correctional services 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 has been no independent evaluation.

The department would lease the university property for $1 for an initial term of 10 years with two renewal options of five years each for $1. The plan would be to continue using it as a psychiatric hospital until it is finally closed within the next decade.

The sale price has raised questions since the state sold 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 over $1.32 million. The property has been designated as a leisure park space.

The Ministry of Health has been the subject of lawsuits and a court order over delays in transferring those deemed unfit to stand trial from prisons to psychiatric hospitals.

In 2017, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge tried acting Health Secretary Dennis Schrader in defiance of an order opening and staffing 60 more beds. The Court of Appeals later dismissed the contempt ruling saying that Schrader and the department, while slow to do so, ultimately complied with the circuit court judge’s order.

But lawmakers in 2018 passed a law requiring the department to admit patients within 10 days. Mary Pizzo, attorney in charge of the forensic mental health division of the Office of the Public Defender, said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the condition “had improved slightly”.

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

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

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 public facilities closed.

“That’s a really good question,” Pizzo said. “I have no idea. There just aren’t enough private beds to meet the needs and do (the private facilities) really want to accommodate these patients when they really don’t have the security (for do it) ? ”