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As House debates Hopemont Hospital future, local leaders mull back-up plan


The Preston County News & Journal

KINGWOOD, W.Va.  — As the West Virginia House of Delegates makes its final vote on a bill to sell Hopemont State Hospital in Terra Alta, leaders and residents have some ideas about how to keep the facility in service and keep jobs in the county.

The cost of maintenance has been cited as the motivation to sell the seven state-owned hospitals. Delegate Terri Funk Sypolt, R-Preston, said the state wants to get out of the business of running hospitals.

According to an audit done in 2012, each patient at Hopemont costs the state $97,620. If the state paid a private facility in West Virginia to take care of them, it would cost $85,000 each. And, back in 2012, the study found it would cost $14.6 million to make necessary repairs and upgrades. That is not counting asbestos abatement costs.

The version of HB3102 delegates will vote on is different from the original submitted by Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. The Finance Committee amended the bill to provide more protection for residents and employees of the long-term care facility.

HB3102 now says the Department of Health and Human Resources must build a replacement facility of at least 60 beds to take care of Hopemont patients. The new geriatric psychiatric nursing home would “accept only individuals with high-acuity needs such as geri-psych, behavioral symptoms, Alzheimer’s, intellectual and developmental disabilities, and patients with criminal histories who do not present a danger to staff or other residents.”

The latest version of the bill orders the DHHR to sell Hopemont, but it does not address the selling of licenses for the empty beds.

It also instructs the DHHR and other state agencies, including the Division of Personnel and the Consolidated Public Retirement Board, to prepare a benefit package for Hopemont employees who are laid off, employed by a successor company or decide to retire. Those benefits might include retraining them or giving them preference to be rehired by the state. To fund those benefits, the amended bill creates the Hopemont Long Term Care Facility Development Fund in the state budget to hold the proceeds from the sales and any appropriations that might be made.

Members of the House will vote on third reading to send the bill to the Senate on Tuesday. If it passes there, it goes to Gov. Jim Justice to be signed into law.

But Prestonians aren’t waiting to see what happens.

Delegates Terri Funk Sypolt and Tony Lewis, both R-Preston, have been in touch with West Virginia University President Gordon Gee and Travis Mollohan, WVU’s director of state and local relations.

“We met with the delegation representing the Preston County area,” said WVU spokesperson April Kaull Stolzenbach. “We offered the expertise of WVU Medicine. However, because this is a state facility, we are working with DHHR on the matter.”

DHHR spokesperson Allison Adler said that as of March 10, there are 58 residents at Hopemont and 98 licensed beds.

Lewis, who worked at Hopemont as a nurse’s aide and then in maintenance from 1975-1979, said he and Sypolt are concerned about the fate of the patients and the staff. Of the 183 staff positions, 110 are filled and 73 are vacant, Adler said. There are 19 temporary workers.

“We are both fighting diligently. We don’t want it to go away,” Lewis said.

“These are not just your typical rest home patients,” Sypolt said. “They have special needs. These are residents living in their home; these are not patients at a hospital.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity there with the farm. Things can be done to make it worthwhile,” Lewis said.

That’s what Preston County commissioners told lawmakers in Charleston when they visited the Capitol March 21 for Preston County Day at the Legislature.

“We’re hoping it remains open, but we’re putting some Plan Bs and Plan Cs in just in case,” said County Commissioner Don Smith. “We would like to see as many people stay employed as possible.”

County Commissioner Dave Price said they talked to staff from the Development Office, plus Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher and Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt.

They discussed the possibility of making Hopemont a drug treatment facility that incorporates agriculture work. Price noted United Summit Center already operates the John D. Good Recovery Center on the property.

“A lot of the treatment methods have to do with farming and gardening and outside things,” Price said. “We’ve got all this farmland. It’s got rooms; it’s in a peaceful setting. How much better could it be?

“You’ve got the property and you’ve got the need,” Price said. “It’s a perfect opportunity probably for some kind of public-private effort.”

Smith talked to Leonhardt about the possibility of expanding agriculture programs that treat veterans on Hopemont’s farmland.

“There is a program I read about in the American Legion magazine to help vets who have PTSD,” Smith said. “They’re getting into farming, and it seems to work well. Suicide rates have dropped for people who participate in that program.

Even citizens are speaking up to support Hopemont.

As of Friday, 291 people had signed a petition on calling for lawmakers to vote no.

A lifelong Terra Alta resident thinks the state should bring in a private third-party contractor to manage the facility.

John Trembly said institutions like the military do that. They own the property, but have an outside company run it.

He is concerned about the fate of the hospital because he knows people who work there. He is also an adult family care provider for the West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources. When the DHHR assigns a person to live with Trembly and his family, the client goes to Hopemont three days a week to a drop-in center called The Clubhouse which is run by Valley HealthCare System.

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