Public hearing held for proposed Sussex psychiatric hospital

The Delaware Health Care Commission held a public hearing earlier this week for a proposed 90-bed psychiatric hospital to be located in Georgetown.

At the hearing, SUN (Solving Unmet Needs) Behavioral Health President Steve Page stated the company first heard about Sussex County after meeting Jeffrey Fried, president/CEO of Beebe Healthcare, last fall.

“He asked us if we would come down and just take a look at Sussex County,” said Page, noting that he would eventually meet with representatives from Beebe, Bayheath and Nanticoke Health Services.

Page said SUN did see there was a need for a behavioral hospital in Sussex County, but noted that the challenges facing the county — such as a shortage of clinicians and shortage of facility-based services — are being seen across the country.

“We look across the country for communities that don’t have enough behavioral-health services, and we look specifically for places where we can incorporate what we do into the community in a way that improves access, improves safety and improves quality,” he said.

Page said SUN would have hospital-based services, and a variety of specialty programs related to mental health and chemical dependency. He added that such a facility would help in what he said is the criminalization of mental health patients.

“People are getting criminalized because they’re sick,” he said. “They’re getting handcuffed and being transferred miles in a police vehicle, they’re waiting hours in an emergency department. It’s a scary place already because of what’s going on with their illness, and then all the trauma we create because we don’t have services available…”

State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn spoke in favor of the proposed hospital, adding that he had also sent in letters of support for the applicant.

“The facility is going to fill a significant gap we have here in Sussex County and will help neighboring areas in Maryland, as well,” he said.

Pettyjohn echoed Page’s comments, noting that the criminalization of mental-health patients needs to be addressed.

“The last thing you want to do is have someone who needs mental health treatment being handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.”

A nearby hospital, said Pettyjohn, would not only be beneficial for the patients, in terms of finding treatment locally, but would help their family and friends, who are part of the patients’ support networks.

“This is something that the community as a whole is supporting,” he added, stating that Bill West, mayor of Georgetown, and fellow legislators are in support of the application.

The majority of attendees spoke in favor of the application, including Jim Martin of the ACE Resource Center and the Sussex County Action Prevention Coalition.

“I’m in this every day… When I first heard the news that a psychiatric hospital had the potential of coming to Georgetown, I was joyful at first… It’s only going to be a seven-day stay, and we need that kind of option.”

Martin said that the population of the state of Delaware exceeds 900,000 people.

“And for every 100,000 Delawareans, we have 33 beds statewide, and they are in Kent and New Castle counties… I think, at this point — I think we have to determine if we have the need, and we definitely have the need, from my vantage point.”

Laurel resident Kathy Eger said, from her own personal experience of needing emotional care in the 1980s, that such a facility is needed in Sussex County.

“I ended up having to go to Georgia for care… Where are we supposed to go?” she asked. “There’s no place to go. We desperately need this.”

Tina Distefano, a mother of a drug addict diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety said she moved to Sussex from New Castle County after her son relocated to a halfway house in the area.

Distefano said her son needed to be detoxed from Xanax last summer and from that experience she realized how badly services were truly lacking in Sussex County.

“I took him to Beebe hospital, to find out there was nothing they could do for him or for me… So, at 1:30 in the morning, I’m driving on Route 1, trying to figure out if I want to drive him to New Castle County…

“I called the Crisis Center, and they referred me to Dover Behavioral, which is still 45 minutes away from here. We arrived at Dover Behavioral at approximately 3:15 in the morning.”

As a mother, Distefano said, she would never give up on her son, and the SUN facility would benefit the community and state.

“We really need something here in Sussex County for people to have the treatment available they need, because when they need it, they need it. It is a crisis, and it is a trauma. If they don’t get it, some of them could die. I hope this does become a facility here, and it’s needed as soon as possible.”

Katherine Elder (Ph.D, LPCMH, CCDPD), who owns Delaware Psychological Services with her husband, Jim, said they opened their practice a year and a half ago and had some concerns that there wouldn’t be anyone who needed their services.

“Boy, were we wrong. Daily, we have many, many requests. There’s a lot of community-based services in Sussex County, and in my time practicing in Sussex County, I’ve seen it grow exponentially. But there still remains a service gap in higher levels of care, and that’s really where Sussex County is falling short.”

Elder said she was able to meet with representatives from SUN and believes their services would be able to bridge the gap in care.

Fried also spoke to the need that Beebe Healthcare faces — noting that, in 2012, they transferred, on average, 59 patients each month due to being unable to provide mental health services to those patients — an average of 50 patients per month in 2013, 42 in 2014 — and this year are averaging 44 patients per month.

“People now have to travel elsewhere for those services,” he said. “We continue to have a real need, from Beebe’s perspective.”

Jamie Magee, who works for the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter, said that one population that is often forgotten is the elderly. And while she said she does not consider Alzheimer’s to be a mental illness, it can become one when there is a behavioral problem, “having a catastrophic reaction to some very minor stimulus.”

“What we have found in Sussex County — 80-year-olds are being handcuffed and put in the back of a police car and being driven two hours when they’re already confused and already upset and have a lot of other issues,” she said. “My understanding, there will be a geriatric unit. This will be something that will be helpful and beneficial to us, to Sussex Countians.”

Magee said that her understanding is that Dover Behavioral Health does not take patients with dementia, which she said is a void in available care that needs to be filled.

She said that the commission should also consider transportation issues, as they relate to loved ones who are elderly.

“Try being 80 years old and driving to New Castle County every day because you’ve been married for 60 years to a woman and you’re used to seeing her every day and you don’t want not to see her. So you get in the car and you drive all the way up and all the way back…

“Personally — I’m not speaking for the Alzheimer’s Association — but personally, from my experience, I have to support this facility.”

James Lafferty, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, said his organization supports the people of Sussex County and the need for the facility.

“The folks who spoke — I’ve gotten calls from people in similar situations over the last few years, from the family in Dagsboro, Del., who followed a state police car to New Castle County, where their loved one was going to receive treatment, to the mother in Lewes whose daughter was hospitalized at the Rockford Center in Wilmington, making it virtually impossible for that mother to visit or be involved in her daughter’s care.

“You have to remember that not everybody can walk away from their job and still get paid. So we have lots of folks who really need a facility in close proximity to where they live — not Cambridge, not New Castle County, but right here in Sussex County.”

Jean-Charles Constant, MS, CEO of Dover Behavioral Health, said he opposed the application, stating that, “I welcome a behavioral healthcare provider into the community, but for the right reasons. I think we have to assess what the actual need is.”

Constant said he believed a 90-bed facility isn’t warranted and “would over-bed the state.” What is needed, he said, is “more robust community-based services.”

John McKenna. CEO of the Rockford Center, agreed with Constant, stating, “We believe the unmet need is really a facility to the tune of 20 to 30 beds.”

Ismael Gamma, acting executive director of Adventist HealthCare Behavioral Health & Wellness Services, Eastern Shore, said there are nearby facilities in Maryland that provide services and questioned whether the need for the facility in Georgetown was as great as stated.

Georgetown resident Kathleen Talbott said she was concerned about the proposed facility and needs more information. She said her concerns are focused on safety and transportation.

“I think it would be best to have it in another location,” she said, noting Georgetown already has Sussex Correctional Institution. “How are we going to protect the citizens or the Delaware Tech students?”

She added that she had concerns with SUN being a for-profit business.

“Are there tax incentives that are going to this operation at all? I’m concerned about that.”

Talbott said she was opposed to the application, adding, “Basically, I feel this is a done deal.”

The Rev. Susan Phillips of All Saints in Rehoboth, said that, while she believes there is a need in the community for SUN’s services, she’s concerned that it would be difficult to recruit people without taking employees from other facilities.

“Can you deliver without disrupting what we have in place and taking the people who are already here into your program, and then not being able to deliver and disappoint us all?” she said. “I’m kind of in the middle, but I will be your biggest supporter if you can answer that and bring a bevy of physicians from New Jersey.”

Page said the size of the facility is important for recruitment and care.

Kim Whitelock COO at SUN, said that they recently opened a facility in El Paso, Texas, with 163 new beds.

“It’s easier to recruit to the beach than to the desert,” she emphasized.

Whitelock said the shortage of nurse practitioners and clinicians is being seen throughout the entire country.

“It’s a question that we’re all struggling with: How do we staff behavioral health and the needs?”

She said being able to offer specialty programs, offering services to all ages, allows the facility to become a “hub of excellence.”

“We’re able to recruit people to come and really expand their careers, and dive in and create new programming. We’ve been successful. People said we’d never get docs in El Paso, and we were able to.”

Whitelock said SUN was able to bring in healthcare providers from other parts of the country and was able to get young residents and fellows coming out of school, to partner them with older psychologists.

“If we’re allowed to come and serve the people of Sussex, we’ll do the same,” she said. “I think that we will be successful in recruiting… We’ll be a provider and employer that takes care of people here.”

Prior to closing the public record, the commission announced it would vote on the application at a future meeting, the date of which has not yet been set.

To view information on the proposed project, visit