State wants to shrink — not shutter — Caro psych hospital

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is recommending the state shrink the Caro Center rather than close the 105-year-old psychiatric hospital or move ahead with a $115 million rebuild.

Modernizing or rebuilding a smaller, 84-bed facility in Caro could save the state between $30 million and $55 million, officials said Tuesday in the wake of a statewide review by an independent consulting firm.

The Caro Center

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration halted the larger rebuild project in March, citing staffing and family access concerns driven by the rural location in Michigan’s Thumb region.

Local workers had feared a complete shutdown of the facility, prompting a local campaign for Whitmer to “keep the promise” on a rebuilt project that began under former Gov. Rick Snyder. The state says its revised recommendation would improve services and maintain current staffing levels at the facility.

More: Workers, unions urge Whitmer to 'keep the promise' on psychiatric hospital

The health department is recommending an 84-bed psychiatric facility in Caro, down from 150 beds in the current facility and 200 planned under the full rebuild scenario. The state would re-open units at other state hospitals closer to major population centers and seek to maintain funding for all 794 beds now available statewide.

“These recommendations will sustain and strengthen the Caro community’s historic role in providing psychiatric care,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said in a statement.

“They will also improve the quality of mental health services at state hospitals, while expanding community-based care. Finally, the recommendations will achieve their results at significantly lower cost than the Legislature previously anticipated, allowing for additional investment in other urgent health priorities.”

The health department estimates it would cost $40 million to $65 million to renovate the Caro Center or build a new 84-bed facility at the same site, along with another $20 million to add beds by renovating other existing facilities.

The state is also recommending additional resources for “community-based programs” to help serve residents in need of mental health services without placing them in a facility.

State Rep. Phil Green, R-Millington, called the new recommendation a disservice to Caro residents and the patients treated at the center. 

“I would have expected (Whitmer) to make a commitment to the community that has made a commitment to the state for 105 years,” Green said. “By taking a 200-bed facility and putting 84 beds in it, that does nothing to stop the 205-bed wait list that’s out there.”

When the study of the Thumb area psychiatric hospital began in March, approximately 84 patients were being treated at the Caro Center, but the facility has the capacity for 150, Green said. He said he hoped to change the outlook for the Caro facility during the budgeting process.

“The Legislature holds the purse strings and the budget hasn’t been completed yet,” he said.

Tuscola County Controller Clayette Zechmeister said she was “disappointed” the Whitmer administration has backed off the full rebuilt project, which Snyder had helped break ground on in October. 

“But yet we’re excited at the same time,” she said. “We’re not going to lose jobs. That was very important to the community here.”

The psychiatric hospital has roughly 350 workers and is the county’s second-largest employer, behind only the county government.

Zechmeister noted the state health department suggested moving forward with either a “large-scale modernization” or new construction for the 84-bed facility, but it did not recommend which approach to take.

“We still really don’t know where they’re heading, so we’d like to continue to work with Lansing to figure out what’s happening,” she sd.

AFSCME Council 25, which represents Caro Center employees and had encouraged Whitmer to keep the facility open, also had a mixed reaction to the new recommendation.

“While we are thrilled the hospital will remain operational, we remain concerned by the proposed decrease in beds at the facility,” President Lawrence A. Roehrig said in a statement.

But he thanked Whitmer for including AFSCME in the process. 

“When you elect kind-hearted and compassionate leaders, you don’t always get everything you want, but you know they are looking out for working people," Roehrig said.

Staff Reporter Beth LeBlanc contributed