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Panel Delays Spending Funds to Shut Hospital

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A committee of state Senate and Assembly leaders voted Wednesday to delay spending nearly $12 million to close Camarillo State Hospital until a task force comes up with recommendations for future uses for the property.

The decision means that there is still a chance that the 60-year-old hospital will not close at the end of June 1997.

“I’ve got a big smile on my face,” said state Sen. Cathie Wright, the Simi Valley Republican whose district includes the 750-acre hospital grounds.

The conference committee of Assembly and Senate leaders approved the delay after brokering a deal with Gov. Pete Wilson, who vowed in January to close the hospital because of spiraling patient costs.

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The $12 million will be set aside until a task force of mental health officials, hospital workers, patient relatives and other stakeholders considers proposals for the property.

Even though task force members have not yet been announced, the panel will be required to submit its report to Wilson and the Legislature by Nov. 1. The first meeting is tentatively scheduled July 12, Wright said.

“We’re trying to limit it to 20 people,” she said. “I want to ensure that it is equally balanced for people who want different uses for Camarillo State.”

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Officials from the Cal State University system have already set their sights on the 85 mission-style buildings. University administrators have visited the hospital several times and said it would make an ideal campus.

Wright said she wants to keep Camarillo State open by bringing other users onto the campus to reduce overhead costs--a state agency, a nonprofit group or even a private-sector business.

The task force will be charged with looking at all potential options, not simply abandoning the hospital as proposed. That’s an important distinction from a statement last month by the governor that the task force would look at uses for the property once the hospital was closed, Wright said.

Wilson said he would take the recommendation of the citizen task force seriously when he considers what to do about Camarillo State, which costs almost $100 million a year to treat about 850 people.

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Ventura County would lose more than 1,500 jobs and an $80-million annual payroll if the hospital closes--an economic factor that prompted a number of local officials to lobby state lawmakers to keep the hospital open.

But officials at the California Department of Mental Health said Wednesday that they have already considered most options, and that none seems to make much economic sense.

“We studied it extensively before the decision was made by the governor to close the facility,” department spokeswoman Fran Coletti said. “But it was not economically feasible to maintain the facility.”

Specifically, the department proposed converting Camarillo State to a forensic hospital that would treat sexual predators and other mentally ill criminals.

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But Coletti said those costs were too high for state prison officials.

“We looked at several different combinations of populations, but it would rely on the Department of Corrections,” she said. “It would be very expensive for them when compared to the annual cost of caring for an inmate in prison.”

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John Chase of the Green Line Parents Group said Wednesday’s vote by the conference committee gives him hope that his developmentally disabled daughter will not have to move from Camarillo State.

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“I think it’s encouraging,” he said. “We’ll watch very carefully.”

Chase backs a plan to keep the most severely retarded patients at Camarillo State. He has already requested that someone from the parents’ group be appointed to the task force to help make that happen.

“What we have lobbied for is that they maintain a facility there that would take care of the 100 or 150 patients who would be most adversely affected by the closure,” he said. “There’s room for that there.”

Hospital workers, meanwhile, have not given up on keeping Camarillo State open.

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“To me, this vote says that the conference committee thinks there’s potential to keep the facility open,” said Brian Bowley, president of the local psychiatric technicians union. “Otherwise, they would just spend money now to go ahead and close it.”

Nonetheless, nearly 100 workers have already taken jobs at other state institutions, Bowley said.

“It would have been a lot higher if there was no hope for us at all.”


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