Democrats Call for NJ to Reopen Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital

Safe haven needed for seniors with severe mental illness now living in overcrowded, potentially dangerous facilities

Credit: NJTV News Online
Sen. Garrett W. Hagedorn Gero-Psychiatric Hospital
New Jersey should reopen a Hunterdon County psychiatric hospital in order to properly treat hundreds of senior citizens with severe mental illness who are now living in facilities critics claim are overcrowded and potentially violent, according to a pair of Senate Democrats.

Sens. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a longtime advocate for individuals with mental illness, and Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), the health committee chairman, introduced a resolution earlier this week calling on the new administration to put the Hagedorn Gero-Psychiatric Hospital back into use to improve care and reduce the strain on other state hospitals. The proposal does not include a price tag.

The measure blames former Gov. Chris Christie for closing the Glenn Gardner facility in 2012 as part of an ongoing effort to shift patients into less restrictive facilities, a decision that required 255 residents to be moved to community settings, nursing homes, and other state hospitals. Codey made a similar request to Christie in August, to no avail.

“While it is appropriate and desirable that patients with mental illness be treated in the least-restrictive setting possible, there will always be some patients whose illness prevents them from living safely and fully in the community, whose age or condition render them particularly vulnerable if they were to be hospitalized with other mentally ill patients, or whose illness requires stabilization that only a specialized psychiatric hospital can provide,” the resolution reads, according to an early draft of the proposal.

Overcrowding at Greystone

The state’s largest institution, Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, in Morris Plains, has been particularly impacted by this and other closures, experts note, and the facility built to accommodate 450 patients held some 560 last March. This includes elderly residents with mental illness, people deemed insane by criminal courts — who often present significant security concerns — and residents with developmental disabilities who may not have a mental illness, but were transferred from another state facility that closed.

“Many of the geriatric patients were transferred to Greystone, to live in overcrowded and unsafe conditions, where residents have suffered violence,” Codey said. “Reopening Hagedorn is the right thing to do to address the crisis we now face.”

Former members of the Greystone board have sounded repeated alarms about overcrowding, a need for more clinical staff, the challenge of addressing the diverse clinical needs of different patient groups, and what they said are worrisome levels of violence. They have also endorsed the request to reopen Hagedorn.

State officials note that Greystone’s population has declined to 517 individuals and that the facility, with upgrades, can now accommodate 554 patients; executive and clinical positions at the hospital have been filled; and there is an ongoing effort to hire more psychiatrists. The hospital complies with all requirements when it comes to reporting violence, they noted.

“Our priority is the safety of patients and staff and delivery of quality, recovery-oriented care in all of our state psychiatric hospitals,” said state Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner.

Going undercover

But Codey, a former acting governor who has gone undercover at state facilities to expose inadequate care, fears vulnerable patients aren’t getting the proper care or protection. The issue also attracted the attention of Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) and his GOP district colleagues, who toured Greystone in September and shared their concerns with state officials.

It is not clear how Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who took office three weeks ago, will respond; his office did not return a request for comment Thursday afternoon and questions about the state’s psychiatric hospitals did not play a major role in his campaign. Transition reports outlining policy recommendations for the Department of Human Services, which oversaw state psychiatric facilities until last fall, and the Department of Health, which now runs these hospitals, don’t mention these institutions at all.

While more than 10,000 citizens were once hospitalized in New Jersey, the population today is closer to 1,500 patients, split among four facilities: Greystone; Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, in Winslow Township, Camden County; Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, in West Trenton, Mercer County; and Ann Klein Forensic Center, a psychiatric hospital for those referred by the criminal court system, also in Trenton.

The Senator Garrett W. Hagedorn Gero-Psychiatric Hospital first functioned as a tuberculosis hospital until it was converted in the late 1970s to treat seniors with mental illness. Four decades later, it began accepting patients of all ages; the population peaked in April 2010, with nearly 300 patients, according to the Senate resolution. Christie closed the facility in 2012.

That decision required some patients to be relocated to other hospitals and, according to a list of concerns filed with the state in December by Greystone board members, added 100 elderly individuals annually, on average, to the population at the Glenn Gardner facility. Christie also presided over the closure of two state-run developmental centers, in Woodbridge and Totowa, which shifted an average of 35 patients a year to Greystone’s census, the board said.

“The current population presents complex medical issues that did not exist at the time the hospital was initially opened,” wrote board chair Eric Marcy, an attorney, and his four colleagues. “Serious consideration should be to reopening Hagedorn to allow Greystone to return to its core mission the treatment of the seriously mentally ill.”

It is not clear if the board received a response to their letter, which reiterates concerns they said they have raised repeatedly in recent years.

The five members were replaced on January 10 — five days before Christie left office — when the outgoing governor appointed nearly 100 individuals, including senior staff members and agency heads, to dozens of oversight boards. Greystone’s new leadership includes Christie’s friend and former colleague at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Michele Brown, and then-CEO of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, Wayne Hasenbalg.

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