Tom Watkins: Caro psychiatric hospital may be good politics, but it’s bad policy

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is reconsidering the expansion of a state-run adult psychiatric hospital in Caro in Michigan’s Thumb.

This is a wise decision.

The 2018 ceremonial groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the new Caro Psychiatric Hospital: Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget Director David DeVries; Cynthia Kelly of MDHHS; Gov. Rick Snyder; Caro Center Director Rose Laskowski; and MDHHS Director Nick Lyon | MDHHS photo

The decision to build these psychiatric beds in a Republican area by a Republican former governor, Rick Snyder, and a Republican-led Legislature was a good one — if the end game was jobs and economic development for a struggling community.

However, the policy goal should be providing care as close as possible to the communities in which those with mental illness and their families reside.

To be clear, there is a need for high-quality public psychiatric beds for people with serious mental illnesses across the state. Those hospital beds should be accessible to those in need of care and those who support them. Caro does not fit this criteria.

I believe that building a new psychiatric hospital as a rural jobs and economic development project is a disservice to people with serious mental illness and their families.

Statewide need

There is a desperate need for adult psychiatric beds across the state. It is a crisis in the metro Detroit area and Northern Michigan.

Rick Snyder and Brian Calley at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

Finding a hospital bed for a person with a serious mental illness is like your name is Mary or Joseph and it just happens to be December 24th.

When the discussion was being held to expand state hospital beds for persons with serious mental illnesses, I served as the president and CEO of Michigan’s largest public community mental health organization, the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Agency. I objected to the decision to expand beds in Caro. I argued the new beds were desperately needed in the metro area.

I am concerned about helping rural communities keep pace economically, especially considering how they tend to fall behind in the 21st century knowledge economy. But it is simply bad public policy to use some of our most vulnerable citizens and their families as economic development and job pawns to do so.

Clearly, this decision was not made with the best interest of the behavioral health needs of Michigan in mind. It was about power, control and politics.

Professionals in the mental health field, consumers and advocates have applauded Whitmer for pausing development. But given the state’s history of betraying this vulnerable community there is also apprehension, as well as an expectation that their voices will be listened to in the future.

Kevin Fischer

Kevin Fischer, president and CEO of NAMI-MI, the state affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, said, “There is a crisis in the ability to find psychiatric beds across Michigan, and it makes little sense, other than for purely political considerations, to concentrate all the new psychiatric beds in one isolated area of the state where it also has proven to be a difficult place to attract and retain behavioral health professionals.

“NAMI-MI appreciates the governor for hitting the pause button on this decision and implores her to listen to the needs of families desperately in need of this service as part of her deliberations.”

He added, “Her silence on behavioral health issues to date is concerning.”

Mark Reinstein, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, said the “shortage of critically needed psychiatric beds across Michigan is well documented. The state has failed its responsibility to meet the needs of persons with serious mental illness. It’s critical that the state not use this as a way to end Caro without replacing its beds elsewhere.”

“Given the history of neglect it is frightening to contemplate that’s what the powers-that-be could be thinking behind closed doors.”

Need for accountability

While Whitmer and Department of Health and Human Services are focused on the issue of mental health, they may want to hold accountable local hospitals that receive public resources to serve people with serious mental health needs.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit, March 7, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Many of those hospitals are skirting their responsibility to serve those with serious and chronic mental health issues in their communities. Michigan’s mental health is too important to be used as a political or economic football.

The state needs to get serious about using all the tools at its disposal: Certificate of Need process, licensing, revoking tax-exempt status from nonprofit hospitals not serving the public need, and invoking other significant financial penalties to force hospitals to meet their public obligations.

The needs of those with serious mental illnesses have long been neglected in Michigan, and should be prioritized as policy-makers decide how to best use limited public resources.

The change in direction would be refreshing.

Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins was deputy chief of staff to Gov. Jim Blanchard, director of Department of Mental Health and State Superintendent of Schools. He has also been president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida and is considered an expert on China.


  1. This is so true! We need to have support and services in areas where people live and their families live. How can people liveina rrural area engage those that are around them so far away? Detroit,GrandRpids, Oakland county all need this. Why take away support and then expect to be part of their community when they are receiving treatment in a rural setting? Great article Tom!!!


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