From the News Sentinel:
Gov. Bill Haslam indicated Tuesday he is inclined to push ahead with a proposal to close Lakeshore Mental Health Institute — a day after Knox County commissioners said they would ask state officials to step in and keep the facility’s doors open.
Haslam told the News Sentinel the proposal made by state Department of Mental Health Commissioner Douglas Varney in mid-November was part of a “top-to-bottom review” of his department, which the governor ordered all commissioners to conduct.
Haslam said the final decision to proceed with closing the Lyons View Pike center will be made “in four weeks or so,” and he left the impression he would follow Varney’s recommendation.
“From everything I understand, I think this is the right approach to take,” he said. “The question is: Can we help more people more effectively? It seems to me that we can.”
The state could close the aging institute, which is surrounded by a popular community park, by the end of the fiscal year, as part of a plan to outsource mental-health care to private inpatient facilities and community-based programs. If approved, Lakeshore would stop admitting patients next month.
Many local officials are concerned the community lacks enough programs to serve a majority of the patients who end up at Lakeshore.
And, they’re predicting a rise of mentally ill in the homeless and jailed populations if the operation shutters.
During Monday’s County Commission work session, officials said they were blindsided by the state proposal and wanted answers. A number of them said they tried to reach Varney and he did not call back.
They agreed to ask the local legislative delegation to get involved. They also wanted state officials to delay closing the facility at least two years. County Mayor Tim Burchett on Tuesday secured a meeting with Varney for this afternoon. A number of commissioners are expected to attend.
“The commissioners have a lot of questions, and the sooner we can get him in, the quicker we can find solutions,” the mayor said.
He added that they’ll ask Varney “to give us the plan on how the closure will take place as they see it.”
Haslam said he agreed that “more explanation for people in the community” is in order.
When asked, however, whether a two-year delay is appropriate, the governor said: “I’m not sure what the purpose of a delay is. If it’s right now, why put it off?”
County Commissioner Jeff Ownby, who spearheaded the move to seek help from state officials, said he was upset that the governor appears disinclined to reconsider proposed plans for Lakeshore’s future.
“I guess the governor doesn’t care about an unfunded mandate in the city and county where he lived,” said Ownby, adding that today’s meeting is “a waste of time if it won’t change anything.”
“I think it’s disappointing that (Haslam) would already make that observation without even talking to the public here and the local officials here to see if we couldn’t work out some situation other than leaving the third largest city in the state without a mental hospital,” he added.
Commission Chairman Mike Hammond said “the governor is going to do what the governor is going to do,” but he was less critical.
Hammond said he just wants to hear the state’s plans, and it’s even possible he could support the measure.
“The fact that there is a plan and it hasn’t been shared with the local elected officials obviously is a concern because this is a great asset to our community — both Lakeshore and also the property,” he said. “How are these people going to be taken care of? Are there other services that are going to be provided at the local level? Those are some of the questions we need answered.”