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    State mental hospital shuts down

    The decision to close G. Pierce Wood followed a series of incidents that ended in death or injury.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 9, 2002

    For more than 50 years, the G. Pierce Wood state hospital took in severely mentally ill people from the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida, on a sprawling rural complex that was close enough to visit but remote from public view.

    This week the institution quietly ceased operating. The last few patients were transferred Thursday to other locations.

    "This hospital and a lot of other state hospitals like it are dinosaurs," said James K. Green, a West Palm Beach lawyer who waged a 17-year legal battle to improve care at the hospital. "The fact of the matter is, people get better quicker and cheaper when they're closer to their home communities and families."

    The move was expected since 2000, when state officials announced their plans to shut the facility. Opened in 1947, it is about 45 miles southeast of Sarasota in Arcadia.

    About 300 patients have been discharged from the hospital since January 2001. Of those, roughly 80 were transferred to three other remaining state mental institutions, and more than 200 were sent to community treatment programs and supervised apartments.

    "Each resident that was at G. Pierce Wood was assessed to determine what their specific needs would be," said Debbie Webb, spokeswoman for the state Department of Children and Families.

    "It all went very smoothly in terms of finding placement for folks."

    As they closed the hospital, state officials increased spending on community mental health programs by more than $30-million.

    Many mental health professionals say patients can be better treated in small community settings closer to their families. Others, and some family members of patients, say large institutions still provide the best care for severely ill patients who might harm themselves or others if released.

    A small staff will continue working until the end of this month to finish closing the hospital.

    The state's decision followed a series of incidents in which patients died or were severely harmed. Among them: a patient who spent so much time in hot bathwater that he later died of hyperthermia; another who cut off both hands on a table saw; a 21-year-old who died a day after admission with toxic levels of medication in his body.

    Critics said G. Pierce Wood's care was substandard. Last year the hospital received a vindication when a federal judge ruled it was adequate. The U.S. Department of Justice had sought to intervene in the case.

    But state officials already had decided to close the hospital, which they said would save state money and provide better care.

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