By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
A month has passed since the Health Care Authority of Cullman County issued a press release announcing a deal that would "transfer ownership" of the defunct Woodland Medical Center's psychiatric patient wing to USA Healthcare, a Cullman-based health care provider.
The fog obscuring nearly every detail in the authority's March 24 announcement now may gradually be starting to lift, as some aspects the authority had addressed with silence now are gradually becoming clearer.
Assuming the two parties make good on a letter of intent signed sometime before the authority's press release, "transfer ownership" means the health care authority will sell the old hospital's 20 psychiatric patient beds—beds that have lain idle since the authority bought and then closed Woodland last summer.
When USA Healthcare takes ownership, the psych beds again will occupy essentially the same space on the old Woodland campus as they did before—the Woodland Hills psychiatric wing at the end of main building nearest the vacant emergency room structure.
Frank Brown, who owns USA Healthcare, said the new psych unit will be fully licensed and will employ a treatment staff that meets or exceeds regulatory guidelines.
"We've filed an application for a license to operate a psychiatric hospital there," said Brown. "The state of Alabama has received the architectural documents, and those must meet all regulations. We must go through the same process for this work as any new applicant would."
Cullman County has been without inpatient psychiatric care since the health care authority bought and then closed Woodland Medical Center last summer.
Cullman Regional Medical Center (CRMC), which the health care authority owns, had initially obtained an emergency certificate of need for the 20 psych beds. At the time of the Woodland closure, CRMC officials indicated the beds would find a new home on the CRMC campus before July 2010, when the certificate expires. Four months passed. Then the hospital announced the beds weren't coming.
In the interim, local residents seeking inpatient mental treatment have either traveled out of the county—the nearest option is in Decatur—or have gone without.
Patients who have no choice—such as criminal defendants for whom a judge has mandated inpatient treatment—have been receiving care at a number of qualifying facilities scattered throughout the state.
By law, such patients must be delivered to their designated treatment centers in the custody of a sheriff's deputy. That means the Cullman County Sheriff's Office has spent the last nine months assigning the requisite manpower to drive each defendant to and from his stint in a psychiatric ward well afield of Cullman County's patrol jurisdiction.
The trips take time: depending on bed availability; the defendant's age; the type of treatment ordered; and other factors, a deputy must head to Decatur, Birmingham, Gadsden, Tuscaloosa or Talladega.
For Sheriff Tyler Roden, the reestablishment of local inpatient psychiatric treatment would afford county residents a little more of something they're now missing whenever a traveling deputy is called to spend a chunk of his patrol shift away from the public he's sworn to protect.
"It would be a tremendous help to us if we had beds available here in our own community," said Roden. "The way it is now, it obviously takes us out of the county.
"It's normally an on-duty deputy that performs that (transport) detail, and when he does, that's time spent away from his responsibilities of patrolling in Cullman County as a deputy sheriff on the street," continued Roden. "It's valuable time that we need them out on the road here in our county; in our community. If he's spending time traveling out of county, that's time he's not able to spend here, where he is needed."
Brown said he would like to think the psychiatric bed purchase could be a first step toward revitalizing the Woodland campus.
"Basically, what we've agreed to—and we haven't signed on the dotted line yet—is (for the Healthcare Authority of Cullman County) to sell us the rights to the hospital beds only," Brown explained. "Then we would lease the entire building from them for an extended period of years. We would hope to buy it at some point in time.
“And although we are leasing the entire building now, we won't be operating throughout the entire building," he added. "We'll be looking into some options for the rest of the building. I'm really not beyond that point of just going over ideas in my head right now.”
USA Healthcare is already doing some work at the building in an effort to ready the psychiatric ward for its first patients as soon as possible—but not at the expense of preparedness.
"There's a certain timeline, but it's more a self-imposed timeline," said Brown. "Our expectation is to meet the deadlines we must meet, and we hope to be open this summer. We're pretty certain we'll be receiving our license sometime in early June, and then we hope to have the building open between then and, certainly, before Labor Day at the latest."
If the psych unit opens as planned, that's relief enough for other mental health professionals in Cullman County who advocated strongly for the health care authority and CRMC to lead the way in bringing inpatient psychiatric services back to the area.
"I'm thrilled about it," said Mental Healthcare of Cullman executive director Chris Van Dyke. "I think the community knows that many of us have been pushing hard for it to come back to Cullman, and we're very happy that it is."
Van Dyke, who oversees a broad spectrum of outpatient mental health services, said Mental Healthcare of Cullman provides a level of care that augments the work of inpatient facilities. Those can include assisting discharged bed patients with recovery and maintenance issues; or screening and prepping inbound patients.
Having the next level of mental care back in Cullman County is a relief both personally and professionally for Van Dyke, who takes confidence in the ability of multiple care providers to more effectively coordinate services when all players are local.
"There's no direct benefit to us as an outpatient clinic, but there most definitely will be indirect benefits," said Van Dyk. "It's a resource for our clients; one that they greatly need. And it is a local resource for my staff.
"I'm glad he (Brown) is willing to take on that challenge. I know he's going to bring the right help to get the job done as it should be. We're looking forward to working with him."
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 270.