The group's next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Penn Yan Village Hall

A community group is holding meetings about Finger Lakes Health's planned closure of the inpatient behavioral health unit at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hospital in Penn Yan.

A member of the group reported about 40 people attended the first meeting, and another is planned for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Penn Yan Village Hall because they say hospital employees were told the unit will be closed Feb. 16.

Lara Turbide, vice president community services at Finger Lakes Health, says no date has been set, and there will not be a closure of the unit until approval is received from the state Department of Health and Office of Mental Health. She says the Feb. 16 date is related to the departure of a psychiatrist. The hospital is in the process of recruiting a psychiatrist — either a permanent or temporary replacement.

A statement released by Hannah Dickinson, Communications Coordinator

Geneva Women’s Assembly, spells out the concerns of those who attended the first community meeting.

The statement says Finger Lakes Health's application for a certificate of need related to closure of the unit was submitted Jan. 28.

The statement continues: "This has resulted in massive confusion for employees, patients and community members. Hospital employees were told that the unit would close on Feb. 16 and many nurses have already left the unit; however, the closure has not yet been reviewed or approved by state regulatory agencies."

Turbide says the unit will remain open while health system officials continue to work with state officials on the process. "There won't be a closure of a unit until there is approval by the Department of Health or Office of Mental Health," she says, explaining that the process of the review takes time.

During the community group's first meeting last week, according to the statement, residents say they have observed a pattern of defunding at Soldiers & Sailors, cutting personnel and services well before the closure of the mental health inpatient unit was proposed. “Rather than closing down the mental health unit, the hospital should be investing more resources in the unit, so it can serve the community better,” one meeting attendee noted, according to the statement. “Mental Health services shouldn’t be about making a profit, they should be about keeping our community healthy and safe,” another resident continued.

According to the community group's statement, meeting attendees testified to the benefits of the unit for managing their own mental health. Former patients also explained that the small size and consistent staff made Soldiers & Sailors different from other, larger inpatient mental health facilities. One former patient explained: “Being at Soldier’s & Sailors was like being at home. The nurses know me and know my history and the atmosphere is different than other hospitals.”

Meeting attendees said the proposed closure would have wide-ranging impacts on the

community, the hospital, and the quality of mental healthcare throughout the region. One former employee explained “there is already a shortage of beds in Ontario, Yates, Schuyler, and Seneca Counties. Clifton Springs is the closest hospital with an inpatient unit and their beds are always full.” Healthcare providers explained that care could be compromised if mental health patients were far from their family, local resources, and follow-up care providers.

But Turbide says other facilities in the region are experiencing the same issues as Soldiers & Sailors: declining use, reduced reimbursements., and struggling to find psychiatry coverage for an inpatient program requiring coverage around the clock, 365 days per year. If the unit here closes, the others might be able to operate with more consistent staffing and finances.

Current and former mental healthcare professionals at the meeting expressed concerns about the massive burden the proposed unit closure will have on the emergency department, which is not equipped to provide mental health treatment.

According to the statement, community members vow to keep fighting for community healthcare, and they are asking that the New York Department of Health “conduct a community impact study on the possible closure of the inpatient mental health unit." They are encouraging others concerned about the unit closure to submit public comments to the New York Department of Health: cons@health.ny.gov.

The next community meeting will be held, Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. at 111 Elm St.