Decision to shut Allentown facility final; about 55 patients heading to Wernersville State Hospital

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Origionally posted: February 24, 2010 by McClatchy-Tribune on

Allentown facility decision said to be final; a third of patients headed to Wernersville.

Mental health workers and former patients questioned the decision to close Allentown State Hospital during a daylong public hearing this week, with many urging caution and one even calling the pending shutdown "ethically questionable."

The state announced last month that it will shutter the landmark mental hospital in east Allentown by year's end, raising fears about how some of the Lehigh Valley area's most fragile residents will be treated.

About one-third of the 170 or so patients who remain there will be sent to Wernersville State Hospital.

The rest will be placed in private residences, group homes or other programs.

The Allentown facility is the latest in a string of mental hospitals targeted for closure as Pennsylvania continues its strategy of shifting people with mental illnesses out of institutions and into various outpatient programs.

Officials with the state Department of Public Welfare, which is in charge of the closure, have said allowing people to live in the community while receiving treatment often works best.

But several witnesses at Monday's hearing, hosted by the Welfare Department at a hotel near Lehigh Valley International Airport, said they fear patients' care will suffer.

Gregory M. Smith, the Allentown hospital's chief executive from 1997 until last September, called the state's plan "unsafe" and said previous closures of state hospitals in the Harrisburg and Pittsburgh areas were followed by at least some suicides.

"People who are psychiatrically unstable should not be moved to another hospital with a different team away from their home communities without their informed consent," he said, according to testimony he submitted. "To do so is therapeutically risky, morally wrong and ethically questionable."