Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration on Wednesday delayed construction of a new $115 million state psychiatric hospital in Michigan's Thumb region, citing staffing shortages and other concerns months after the groundbreaking.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced it will hire an outside consultant to review the project and make recommendations. The move sparked criticism from Republican lawmakers who worry the Democratic governor could try to build the hospital elsewhere.
The 150-bed Caro Center — one of five state psychiatric hospitals — opened more than 100 years ago and treats adults with serious mental illnesses. Under a budget plan approved by the Legislature in 2017, construction of a new 200-bed hospital in Caro, 35 miles northeast of Flint, is to be completed in 2021. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder attended a groundbreaking in October.
The state said the current hospital faces "notable challenges," including staffing shortages and recruitment barriers. There is no active permanent psychiatrist on staff, so state psychiatrists from elsewhere have been pulled in to treat patients, according to the department. It pointed to a design delay because of difficulty identifying a safe, sustainable water source at an acceptable cost, and it said only 30 percent of the 86 patients have family living within 75 miles of the existing hospital.
The review and resulting recommendation — due by the end of June — will help "determine what is in the best interest of Michiganders who need critical state hospital services," DHHS Director Robert Gordon said in a statement. "Bed capacity, access to trained staff and proximity to family and community services will be a part of the reexamination."
Rep. Phil Green, a Millington Republican whose district includes the hospital, blasted the decision as "fiscally irresponsible." He called it "devastating" and said it would "shatter the lives" of more than 300 employees who work there. He noted the announcement came less than a month after Whitmer blocked the sale of a former state prison in Ionia that was proposed as the site of a privately operated federal immigration detention center.
"I am disgusted at the blatant disregard for rural Michigan and Thumb residents," Green said in a statement. "The governor has shown that she is interested only in helping the residents of areas that were instrumental in electing her — repeatedly disenfranchising areas of the state that were not."
The state has spent $3 million on the project. Green accused Whitmer of wanting to unnecessarily redo studies.
A Whitmer spokeswoman had no comment.
A key lawmaker, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernandez, also expressed disappointment, saying the new facility should not be moved to a more "politically connected" area.
"Anyone with experience in the construction industry understands that construction delays greatly add to costs of any project, and this delay seems like an obvious attempt to kill the project," the Port Huron Republican said.