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Blunt reverses position, offers plan to keep Bellefontaine open

Gov. Blunt said Tuesday the safety of the center's residents remained his top priority (UPI file photo)
Gov. Blunt said Tuesday the safety of the center's residents remained his top priority (UPI file photo)

By Tom Weber, KWMU

Bellefontaine Neighbors, MO – After two years of calling for the closure of the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center in north St. Louis County, Gov. Matt Blunt Monday reversed course and offered a plan to keep the mental health facility open.

The governor had wanted the center closed, and the residents there moved, after reports surfaced of patient abuse there.

The crux of the new plan is that private companies will provide many aspects of care but with a state presence remaining on the campus.

"I think this proposal by ensuring there's a state presence co-mingled with a private community provider really will help ensure that abuse doesn't occur; that there's plenty of oversight," Blunt said at a news conference at the center, announcing the plan.

Blunt says he changed his mind after meeting with families of residents, who stressed that many Bellefontaine residents are middle-aged or older and have grown used to their community.

But family members of the center's residents weren't ready to completely jump on board with the idea.

Mickey Slawson said she was thrilled when she initially heard the center would be kept open, but had some reservations when she heard some of the later details, especially that many aspects of the center would essentially be turned over to private groups.

Slawson used to be president of an association of parents of habilitation center residents; her daughter Carol lives there.

"There still an awful lot of questions and concerns that we've got," Slawson said Monday afternoon, after attending a few meetings to hear details of the plan. "We've seen what happens in the community and we don't trust them.

"There are some good ones out there, but there are some real bad ones, too."

Slawson's group had for more than two years fought to keep the center state-run.

Under the plan, the center's current 172 residents will be reduced to 144. The 28 residents who will leave are already in the process of being moved, and Blunt said they will be kept in the St. Louis area.

The plan also calls for new construction at Bellefontaine, including a new 120-bed residence for the developmentally disabled; a new building to house 24 of the center's most severely disabled residents; and a new 12-bed acute developmentally disabled 'stabilization unit' that will serve patients who have both developmental disabilities and psychiatric problems.

The 12-bed stabilization unit is a new facet to the center's mission, Blunt said, noting it was a first for the state. Keith Schafer, the Missouri Mental Health Director, added the unit will serve the entire St. Louis community, while the other changes are simply being made to accommodate the current population at Bellefontaine. He also said further changes, like building a nursing home onsite, could be a future addition as that population ages.

"We had a chance to talk to some family members who reminded us, of course, that these folks are aging here, that they had been a community for a long time, and pleaded with us to see if there was a way we could find that would allow us to keep it open in a safe condition," Schafer said Monday morning.

Because the plan announced today includes new construction, it won't entirely be implemented for a few years.

Private companies will build the new facilities and run most aspects of the care; the state will still play a role in day-to-day programming at the centers and also by overseeing the entire operation.

Schafer declined to release estimates of how much the changes would cost the state, and Blunt added during the news conference that while the state might realize a small savings from turning many responsibilities over to private providers, that was not the ultimate goal.

State Rep. Gina Walsh (D-St. Louis), whose district includes the center, said in a statement that she had "cautious optimism" for the plan. "I'm encouraged that the plan still maintains a state presence at the facility," she said. "But I have a great fear that because of privatization the residents will not be adequately protected."

Walsh also has filed legislation in Jefferson City that would require workers of privately-owned mental health facilities to undergo the same training and be subject to the same standards as state workers.

Slawson, for her part, says she's not ready to form an opinion on the matter. She had more meetings planned with officials, as well as the board of the parents' association.


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