Political Dispute Heightens Over Eastern State Plans


LEXINGTON, KY -- A key lawmaker says plans to build a new $129 million Eastern State Hospital in Lexington are still alive despite an e-mail warning to the contrary sent Thursday by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Lexington, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader in its Saturday edition.

In a lengthy e-mail to Gov. Steve Beshear and many legislators, NAMI accused Rep. Jimmie Lee -- who engineered the complex deal that involves several land swaps -- of calling the group this week and angrily threatening to kill the new mental health hospital over the question of who would run it, the Herald-Leader reports.

NAMI wants the non-profit Bluegrass Regional Mental Health-Mental Retardation Board, which runs the hospital, to be guaranteed the management contract at the new facility. The Senate budget bill includes such language. Lee wants the contract to be open to competition. The House budget bill reflects that.

"WE should not have to choose between a new hospital and the care we trust!!! ... PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE ... help us and don't let this absolutely righteous project be ruined," NAMI Executive Director Kelly Gunning wrote in her e-mail. "We have basically been threatened with 'no hospital.'"

That's untrue, Lee said Friday.

"I have every intention of building a new Eastern State Hospital, because it's important to the residents of the old facility and to their families," said Lee, who oversees House budget planning for health and welfare, reports the newspaper.

However, Lee acknowledged meeting with a for-profit company, The GEO Group of Boca Raton, Fla., interested in running the hospital. Several companies are watching the Eastern State plan with an eye on bidding for the management contract if the legislature allows.

"We would be very excited to submit a proposal," said Jorge Dominicis, president of GEO Care, a GEO subsidiary that runs four civil psychiatric facilities for the state of Florida. Overall, the company specializes in private prison and jail management.

While Bluegrass may be doing a fine job now, Dominicis asked, "why wouldn't you want to find out what other people could offer you, what they could achieve for you?"

GEO's political action committee gave $1,000 last year to elect Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and $10,000 in 2005 to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somersetj, the newspaper reports.

Lee, D-Elizabethtown, said he's uncomfortable writing into state law a guarantee that anyone must get a state contract without competition.

"I have nothing against Bluegrass," Lee said. "I think Bluegrass has done a marvelous job. I hope they do a marvelous job in the new hospital. But I am not prepared to mandate that by statute."

However, this isn't a deal-breaker, Lee said. By the end of the ongoing House-Senate budget talks, he wants a new hospital, regardless of what compromises are reached, he said.

On Friday, Gunning said she stood by the accuracy of her e-mail. If Lee now says he's willing to compromise, that's good, but that hasn't been his attitude recently, she said.

Bluegrass Chief Executive Officer Joe Toy called NAMI's public criticism of Lee "unfortunate." But he said advocates are understandably worried that his non-profit might lose the new hospital to a for-profit company that puts revenue ahead of patient care, reports the Herald-Leader.

"Philosophically, I have a serious issue with privatizing safety-net care for individuals," Toy said. "If a person needs 10 or 15 more days in the hospital, but you're tight financially and you have to get them out right now, it's hard to see how you balance that. We're not making cars or widgets here; we're providing care for people who have no other options."

Under Lee's land-swap plan, the state would lease 28 acres at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus near Interstate 75 for a new Eastern State, the Herald-Leader reports.

The current Eastern State property near downtown Lexington would become a new home for Bluegrass Community and Technical College. UK would get most of the classrooms and parking spaces now occupied by BCTC's Cooper Drive campus.

The city of Lexington would bond the $129 million needed to build the hospital, and the state would lease the hospital from the city, paying off the bonds, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Copyright: The Lexington Herald-Leader

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