CENTRAL STATE HOSPITAL — Gov. Ralph Northam will propose a new plan this week to replace one of Virginia’s oldest mental hospitals in the next five years, pushing a faster and cheaper alternative to the plan legislators rejected last month.
The new plan would cost $315 million to replace 13 old buildings with one complex on the sprawling campus outside of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County, or about $70 million less than the plan that General Assembly budget negotiators dropped from the proposed budget at the end of the 47-day session that concluded on Feb. 24.
Northam said he will propose a pair of amendments to the budget that speed the timetable by two years for replacing a facility that was the first psychiatric hospital for black patients in the world when it was founded after the Civil War.
“We need to replace Central State and we need to do it now,” the governor said after touring a ward for patients who were committed to the institution after being found not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity.
Asked whether he had met with legislators to get their support, Northam replied, “I think there is general consensus to move forward.”
The event marked one of Northam’s most extensive public appearances since a scandal erupted almost two months ago over a racist photo on his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
Northam was joined by three legislators — Sen. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, and Del. Lashresce Aird, D-Petersburg, both members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus; and Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of a joint legislative subcommittee that is considering ways to restructure the state’s mental health system, including its institutions such as Central State.
“This is a long time coming,” said Dance, who worked as a nurse’s aide in the early 1970s in a now-shuttered building on Central State grounds that she described as “a snake pit.”
Northam’s new plan “will make sure there’s a new day here,” she said.
The plan would commit Virginia to including the entire project in its capital budget for bond funding. The proposal, if the General Assembly approves it when it reconvenes on April 3, would allow the state to build a 252-bed hospital within five years, not the seven that the governor’s administration initially proposed.
The governor said he would direct the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to report by November on whether the state would need an additional 48 beds for civil patients at Central State and whether to rebuild the 111-bed maximum-security unit for forensic patients at Central State or on available state property elsewhere.
“We will look at other state properties to see if it’s feasible to move capacity there,” he said.
The original, $385.1 million plan to replace Central State ran into trouble at the end of budget negotiations, when the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees said the timeline was too long, the costs too high and the ultimate configuration of the aging mental institutions too uncertain.
Senate Finance Co-chairman Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said Monday that he supports the revised plan, pending final negotiation of budget language to make changes if the pending state study of the institutional system recommends separating the maximum-security forensic unit from facilities for civil patients.
“A five-year plan is better than a seven-year plan, with the option to separate it if it makes economic and treatment sense,” Hanger said, citing other available state properties that might be better suited for the maximum-security unit.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, said the governor’s new proposal is similar to the approach recommended in the House budget.
“This will have an impact far beyond the bricks and mortar of the hospital and will be a boost to our overall mental health system,” Jones said.
Northam allowed news media to accompany him on a brief tour of one civil ward housing 30 men and women in cramped rooms with four beds each. The ward has two bathrooms, one for men and one for women, that allow limited privacy for patients while challenging staff to ensure safety of patients while they shower.
The governor, a pediatric neurologist, asked questions about medication management and ward staffing, and directed much of the attention to the nursing staff, thanking them and their colleagues for working diligently in difficult conditions.
Staff lamented the lack of space and privacy for patients, who have nowhere to store the meager possessions they have accumulated during long stays .
“Some of them don’t have families to send stuff home to,” Claudette Gholson, registered nurse coordinator, told him.
“You would say, the sooner the better?” Northam asked Gholson about replacing the hospital.
“Yes, the sooner the better,” she replied.
Deeds, whose mentally ill son, Gus, attacked his father and killed himself in late 2013 after failing to receive institutional care, drove four hours from his home in western Virginia to attend the governor’s announcement. He said the legislature agrees that the state needs to replace Central State, but didn’t like the original timetable.
“We wanted it done quicker,” Deeds said. “Now it’s getting done quicker.”
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, called the proposal overdue.
“Central State is a linchpin of our behavioral health system, and I’m glad there’s an agreement to move forward quickly,” Cox said.