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State panel considers plan to sell Spring Grove Hospital for $1

spring grove hospital.jpg
Spring Grove Hospital Center is the second-oldest continuously operating psychiatric hospital in the country. Credit: Maryland Department of Health

A controversial plan to sell the state-owned Spring Grove Hospital Center to the University of Maryland Baltimore County for $1 is on the docket at Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting. Rachel Baye and Nathan Sterner discuss the controversy.

Sterner: 

Let’s start with some background. Describe Spring Grove Hospital Center.

Baye:

Spring Grove is a state psychiatric hospital on a massive, 175-acre campus with 77 buildings in Catonsville. According to the state Department of Health, which runs it, the hospital is the second-oldest, continuously operating psychiatric hospital in the country.

It has 375 in-patient psychiatric beds. The vast majority of patients are “forensic” patients, meaning a court has ordered them to be there.

The hospital is also home to the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, which is part of the University of Maryland and conducts research on treatments for schizophrenia, among other things.

Sterner: 

What is the Board of Public Works considering today?

Baye:

The state has proposed selling the hospital campus to UMBC for $1 — effectively transferring the property to the university for free — and then renting it back for $1 a year for up to 20 years. The lease would end when the state Department of Health decides to vacate the property, which could happen at any point during the lease term.

Sterner: 

What would UMBC do with the property?

It’s unclear. Lisa Achkin, a spokesperson for the university, said in a written statement that acquiring the property would help them meet long-term goals for expansion. But she said the university “has no specific, immediate plan for the property.” She said the university will work with state, county and community partners as it develops a plan.

Sterner: 

Why does the Department of Health want to sell the hospital?

Baye:

According to the agenda for today's meeting, the agency no longer needs the property. The clinical facilities are “functionally obsolete,” and repairing the aging infrastructure would be prohibitively expensive. Selling the property allows the Department of Health to begin the process of closing and vacating the hospital.

Sterner: 

So it’s a done deal? The state plans to close the hospital?

Baye:

It’s not a done deal, and the state does plan to close the hospital, but not immediately.

I reached out to the state Department of Health. A spokesperson responded in a written statement that the hospital will remain open and “services to our patients will be unaffected for the foreseeable future.”

The statement also references the agency’s “Facilities Master Plan,” which recommends developing a plan to transition the hospital’s services to other community — potentially private — providers. That’s not for another 10 years.

However, some people I spoke with in the mental health community are worried that this new proposal to sell the hospital would speed things up.

I spoke with Dan Martin, senior director of public policy at the Mental Health Association of Maryland. For him, the proposal feels hasty.

Martin:

There's no public plan for relocation of patients currently at the site. There's no plan for reinvestment in community services. So we feel that releasing this incredibly valuable property for just $1 without a plan for community reinvestment, you know, could potentially really shortchange Marylanders living with mental health and substance use disorders.

Baye:

And Moira Cyphers, who lobbies on behalf of the Maryland branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, told me that there really isn’t an obvious place for the hospital’s patients to seek other services.

Cyphers: 

“Statewide, in hospitals, we have fewer than 1,700 beds set aside for inpatient care, and staffing levels, I think, for about 1,000 beds. And to give you a sense of the scale, there are an estimated 781,000 Marylanders with mental illness. And about 181,000 of those folks have a severe mental illness.”

Baye:

She said all of the state-run psychiatric facilities are at or near capacity on a daily basis.

Sterner: 

It sounds like there are still many unanswered questions about this plan, and we look forward to your reporting on it. Thank you, Rachel.