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   This story appeared in The Times & Free Press on Friday, April 30, 1999.

Moccasin Bend Closure Talk Decried

Staff Writer

He's been Chattanooga's police chief for only 18 months, but Jimmie Dotson says he knows what will happen if the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute closes.

"Based on 25 years of experience," Chief Dotson said Thursday, "I can pretty well tell you the results would be catastrophic for the criminal justice system in Hamilton County."

Alexia Levison, deputy press secretary to Gov. Don Sundquist, said Wednesday that Moccasin Bend -- which serves about 1,200 patients -- could close if the state has to balance its budget for next fiscal year by cutting $365 million.

"We're not threatening anybody," Gov. Sundquist said Thursday. "We just want to be ready in the process if the General Assembly tells us we have to do certain things.

"I don't want to make cuts. That's not my goal. I believe it would set the state back. Frankly, it's out of my hands."

But it'll be squarely in the laps of his men, Chief Dotson said, if Moccasin Bend's patients are turned out onto Chattanooga's streets with the hospital's doors slamming shut behind them.

"Ingredients for disaster," he said.

"The most egregious thing is to put someone in jail who doesn't deserve to be there," the chief said. "But my officers would have no choice if they're called to a problem. It will add to an already burdened court and jail system.

"They don't deserve to be in jail," said Chief Dotson, who recently spoke at the institute. "These people need treatment."

But that point will be moot, the chairman of Moccasin Bend's board of trustees said, if the hospital is forced to close.

"Nobody here can pick up that kind of slack," said Harry Ray. "Private resources here have been shrinking, not expanding.

"Moccasin Bend takes the hardest patients, the ones other hospitals don't want or can't handle. If we didn't have Moccasin Bend, Sheriff (John) Cupp would have a real problem with homeless and deranged people (on the streets) and I suspect his patrol people would be tied up driving (patients) back and forth to Knoxville."

Knoxville is home to Lakeshore, a facility similar to Moccasin Bend that, according to Mr. Ray, is a more suitable candidate for shutdown than the Chattanooga hospital.

"I believe Knoxville has several private facilities to pick up the slack," he said. "They'd do a lot better absorbing that blow. And Lakeshore's older.

"So if you look at the ability of a community to get along without its hospital, there's a crying need to keep Moccasin Bend open. We need to get our (Chattanooga-area state) legislators involved."

The line for those wanting to do that forms behind Hamilton County Executive Claude Ramsey.

"I've repeatedly said to our delegation and the governor that Moccasin Bend shouldn't be closed," Mr. Ramsey said, "and I'll continue to bend anybody's ear who'll stay still long enough to listen. It's important to our community for this facility to be left open."

But if the state fails to do that, he said, the county will be unable to ride to the rescue.

"The county's plate is absolutely loaded," Mr. Ramsey said. "We've got overcrowded jails, we've got to meet BEP (Basic Education Program) requirements and needs for additional school funding. We're just now starting into our budgeting process, and the demands and requests will be much greater than we can supply.

"Moccasin Bend has always been and should continue to be a state responsibility. It does not need to be neglected."

That holds particularly true for the troubled people there, says a minister who's helped conduct religious services at Moccasin Bend over the last 14 years. To the Rev. Mark Womack, any talk in Nashville of closing the hospital because of budget cuts is about much more than numbers on a balance sheet.

"I'm not a financial expert," said Mr. Womack, minister of pastoral care at Jones Memorial United Methodist Church, "but mental health seems worthy of some priority. It seems to me quite an indictment of our society if we don't give some reasonable, appropriate care to people there for reasons beyond their control.

"They're God's children too, just like -- quote, unquote -- normal people."

Moccasin Bend has been on the list of potential mental health institute closures for most of the decade. It was targeted in the so-called mental health "master plan" that was drafted during former Gov. Ned McWherter's second term. Then just last year, a state-commissioned Mercer report listed Moccasin Bend as one of two state mental health institutes that should be closed.

But local legislators and mental health advocates have been able to stall closing efforts in recent years.

(John Commins of the Nashville Bureau contributed to this article.)

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