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Editorial: Remember who saved Catawba Hospital

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Catawba Hospital is expanding. The state plans to add 56 beds to the mental health hospital in Roanoke County — and hire 94 additional employees.

There’s a lot of news packed into that paragraph.

The expansion is driven by statewide factors: The state’s psychiatric hospitals have seen admissions triple over the past five years. Why? Because the state passed a law that required them to admit anyone who’s under a temporary detention order if a bed at a private hospital can’t be found.

That law, of course, came after the tragic series of events where mental health evaluators concluded a young man from Bath County was a threat to himself but also said no hospital bed could be found for him. (In fact, five hospitals had beds available but weren’t contacted.) Under state law at the time, the patient had to be released after six hours despite the evaluation. The next day, he stabbed his father and then shot and killed himself. The father, of course, was state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, who survived the attack and since then has been dedicated to changing the state’s mental health system. The law requiring admission is one part of those reforms. The fact that admissions have tripled suggests that the change was long overdue. Sometimes it’s hard for the public to see whether policy changes are working or not. Here’s pretty clear evidence of one that is working —although no one should think that means the mental health system has been completely fixed.

There’s another thing about this Catawba expansion we should keep in mind, too: Catawba Hospital wasn’t supposed to be here now. Two previous governors — Republican Jim Gilmore in 2001 and Democrat Terry McAuliffe in 2016 — both proposed closing it. Both attempts obviously failed, and we should be grateful now both governors failed.

The reason McAuliffe failed in 2016 is because Roanoke and New River valley legislators mounted a savvy campaign to block the move. Three years later, with Catawba expanding instead of closing, it’s worth revisiting what happened.

Let’s rewind to 2016. A state study had just recommended Catawba be shut down. The facility is one of the oldest in the state. Several floors were going unused. The recommendation to close the hospital and spend the money on other mental health services seemed to make sense. The fact that both a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat came to the same conclusion decades apart seemed only to buttress the argument. In early 2016, closing Catawba seemed almost a fait accompli.

Mental health, sadly, is an issue that doesn’t have a lot of natural constituencies — that’s one reason it’s historically underfunded. For many in the region, the proposed closing of Catawba Hospital was mostly seen as a jobs issue. With about 300 workers, it ranked as the 16th biggest employer in the Roanoke Valley. For neighboring Craig County, the hospital is the single biggest employer. Local governments passed resolutions against the closure.

As Roanoke Valley legislators mounted an uphill campaign to reverse the decision, one of the first things they did might seem counter-intuitive. They decided not to make their case based on jobs. That might have been a strong concern in the Roanoke Valley but seemed a weak argument in Richmond: The state’s not in the business of providing jobs. It is, though, in the business of providing mental health services. Instead, the legislators agreed their argument had to be made that Catawba performs a vital role — and the state report recommending its closure was simply wrong.

On the Friday afternoon of the first week of the 2016 session, Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem, arranged for a small delegation of Catawba advocates to meet privately with the chairman of House Appropriations and a handful of others from the committee.

Habeeb was understated in his approach. “I’m not lobbying you,” he told Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk. “I’m telling you that you’re going to get lobbied.” Instead of the usual ploy of filling a hearing room with supporters, Habeeb brought in just four people — Jack Wood, the hospital’s retired director; Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall; Diane Kelley, executive director of Mental Health America Roanoke; and Marie Grieco, a peer support specialist with a mental health group. “This is not about quantity,” Habeeb said, “this is about quality.”

Jones looked at his watch and told the visitors they had 15 minutes. The meeting lasted an hour — as each person explained what Catawba’s closure would mean to mental health services, and law enforcement, in this part of the state. Wood came armed with a particularly key statistic: On that day alone, there were seven patients in private hospitals waiting to get into Catawba, 26 waiting to get into Piedmont Geriatric – another hospital in Nottaway County slated for closure. Over in the Senate, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, was quietly passing the same statistics to his colleagues. By the time administration officials appeared before the relevant committees, committee members were primed with questions to ask about the proposed closure. Just like that, Roanoke and New River valley legislators had put the administration on the defensive. The phrase “and New River” is important. Habeeb decided that he would not introduce a budget amendment on Catawba, even though the hospital is in his district. Again, that might look too parochial.

Instead, Del. Joseph Yost, R-Pearisburg, would carry it. Yost formerly worked in mental health and was regarded on both sides of the aisle as an authority on mental health issues. That helped underscore the message: This wasn’t about moving jobs from one district to another; this was about the bigger issue of how mental health services should be delivered statewide.

The outcome: Catawba — and its Southside counterpart —stayed open. Since then Habeeb and Yost have moved on – Habeeb willingly, to a new job in Richmond; Yost unwillingly. He was defeated for re-election. Three years on, though, we should be grateful that their campaign to save Catawba succeeded. The state’s decision to expand Catawba now in the face of rising demand is surely proof that it was wrong to consider closing it three years ago. That seems worth remembering.


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