Area Lawmakers: State of Emergency Ended, Department of Health Required to Enforce Certificate of Need at Westchester Medical Center/HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley

Kingston, NY – Lawmakers throughout Ulster County have joined together and called upon the State Department of Health and Office of Mental Health (OMH) to enforce the terms of the Certificate of Need for behavioral health, detoxification and rehabilitation services provided by Westchester Medical Center/HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley (WMC/HAHV) between its two campuses in the City of Kingston.

Previously identified in April 2020 as a potential COVID only acute care facility, emergency approval was given under Executive Order authority to allow WMC/HAHV to prepare the facility to accept acute care patients, however, use of the space was ultimately not required. Since its closure 14 months ago, progress in overcoming the pandemic has been made, with the state of emergency no longer in effect. Despite that, both campuses remain empty, with patients being sent a significant distance from Kingston to Poughkeepsie, a community populous with an entirely separate health care system, primarily serving a different region of the Hudson Valley. This move has been followed by a round of 41 nursing staff layoffs announced last month.

“With Governor Cuomo’s official declaration ending the state of emergency regarding the COVID-19 Pandemic, the temporary authority and reason to discontinue these mandated services and facilities has ceased to exist. As the designated oversight authority, the Department of Health is obligated to immediately enforce the terms of the license granted to WMC/HAHV and require a return of full behavioral health and allied services to the Kingston community,” said Assemblymember Kevin A. Cahill (D- Ulster/ Dutchess).

The letter addressed to NYS Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was signed by Assemblymember Kevin Cahill, Senator Michelle Hinchey, Ulster County Executive Patrick Ryan, Ulster County Legislature Chairman David Donaldson and City of Kingston Mayor Steven Noble. Detailed within is the process by which WMC/ HAHV would be required to follow in order to permanently remove the referenced facilities as well as the obligations set forth in State Law pertaining to enforcement. The joint correspondence reads, “WMC/HAHV does not have the unilateral authority to discontinue the services in question. Indeed, it is a community decision, not a corporate one. Further, the process for making changes to Article 28 inpatient psychiatric beds is delineated under the Department’s Certificate of Need (CON) and OMH Prior Approval Review (PAR) processes. In each instance, local governmental units and, in cases of significant actions, the Behavioral Health Services Advisory Council and the Public Health and Health Planning Council, advise the respective Commissioners. During such meetings, it has been clearly communicated to both DOH and OMH, the resounding opposition to the removal of behavioral health, detoxification and rehabilitation services.”

“People in need of mental health and substance use disorder treatment are significantly better served when those services are located in their communities, near their families and support systems, allowing them to more easily seek the care they need,” said Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-Ulster/Greene). “The cost-cutting measures enacted by HealthAlliance to consolidate these types of services drastically hurt the Ulster County community and leave the area a mental health and substance use disorder treatment desert. I’m proud to stand with my colleagues, my community, and our healthcare professionals in calling on the Department of Health to reject HealthAlliance’s new Certificate of Need application and to immediately restore the life-saving detox and behavioral health services to Kingston. At a time when we’ve seen overdoses skyrocket and mental health service needs increase, we should not be removing care, but increasing it so that everyone, no matter where they live, has equal access to critical, quality healthcare.”

“Permanently closing these inpatient beds, especially in the middle of a surging opioid and mental-health crisis precipitated by a once-in-a-century pandemic, is completely unacceptable and will only compound the tragic surge we’re already experiencing. This destructive move comes after HealthAlliance received commitments for over $90 million in taxpayer-funded support for capital projects. I fervently reject the removal of these services and join my colleagues in calling on the New York State OMH and OASAS to deny this waiver and insist that Westchester Medical Center Health Network immediately return these mental health and addiction services and live up to its stated commitment to ensuring our community’s health and safety,” said Ulster County Executive Patrick Ryan.

I applaud Assemblymember Cahill for his diligence in the fight to see HealthAlliance return mental health services to our community. I stand with Assemblymember Cahill, County Executive Pat Ryan, County Legislature Chairman Dave Donaldson and Senator Michelle Hinchey to continue to urge HealthAlliance and WMC Health to restore these essential mental health and substance abuse services to Kingston, which also serves our surrounding area. We demand that our community’s concerns be heard, so that we can protect our residents and serve our neighbors in their time of need,” said City of Kingston Mayor Steven Noble.

"The only word for the actions of WMC/HAHV is unacceptable. The emergency transfer of these vital services appeared to be justified and necessary in the wake of an unknown number of COVID -19 patients who may have been in need of critical care. With that crisis currently being managed, we find ourselves in the midst of another, very real, very dangerous public health emergency. Ulster County residents need a partner in health care, not broken promises for the sake of bottom lines,” said David B. Donldson, Ulster County Legislature Chairman.

This letter is only the latest of numerous exchanges with Department officials on the topic of service restoration at the Kingston campuses, including two joint hearings held by the New York State Legislature during which Assemblymember Cahill questioned Commissioner Zucker.  A timeline of the communication is attached for reference.

“To the individuals and their families who rely upon the accessibility of these programs, services and facilities in a time of crisis, the distance is insurmountable. The dismantling of a uniformly respected team of compassionate providers is equally dismaying. A fully functioning Behavioral Health and Detoxification Unit, including inpatient services, at the Mary’s Avenue Campus or, in the alternative, while construction is underway, on the Broadway Campus, will better serve the public than the current distant configuration, which appears to have been consolidated to diminish care and reduce costs,” concluded Assemblymember Cahill.