Lawmakers are concerned that services are being cut too fast at Eastern State Hospital.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reports of an early downsizing of Eastern State Hospital by Jan. 1 are the result of a hypothetical timeline and are not an official plan, the state's mental health commissioner told state lawmakers Friday.

Legislators remained concerned that the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and Gov. Frank Keating's office are moving too fast to cut back services and jobs at the state mental hospital at Vinita in an effort to transfer more mental health services to the community level.

A joint legislative oversight panel grilled Mental Health Commissioner Sharron Boehler and Jerry Regier, Keating's Cabinet secretary for health and human services.

Lawmakers met in response to reports that the planned downsizing of Eastern State could occur up to a year earlier than the deadline as set forth in a state law that passed this spring.

The issue heated up this week when Sen. Rick Littlefield, D-Grove, accused Regier of violating the spirit and letter of the new law, which sets a Jan. 1, 2001, deadline for downsizing Eastern State and transferring services to community mental health centers in eastern Oklahoma.

The law calls for a nine-member transition oversight panel to come up with a plan by Jan. 1, 2000, and to submit it to the governor and legislative leaders.

Boehler presented a timeline to the oversight panel last week that would shut down Eastern State a full year earlier than the 2001 deadline. The[ 4] timeline shocked many legislators and mental health officials who maintain that more time is needed to provide adequate mental services at the community level.

Boehler said the timeline was created as a result of a request by Regier that the state Mental Health Department estimate the maximum amount of money that could be freed up within its budget and invested in community-based services if Eastern State were downsized ``as quickly as possible."

The department estimated that if Eastern State were downsized by Jan. 1, 2000, as much as $6.7 million could be redirected toward community mental health centers in eastern Oklahoma.

The hospital's civil unit would be phased down from 160 beds to 44 beds. The hospital staff would be cut by some 200 jobs from the current 530 employees.

Community-based programs in Eastern State's 21-county service area are preparing to expand to accommodate patients who previously would have been admitted to Eastern State. The region's seven mental health centers will receive additional funding, which will come out of savings from the Eastern State cutbacks and from additional Medicaid revenue.

Boehler said the timeline is not the plan that will be submitted by the transition oversight panel, but Regier noted that the earlier Eastern State is downsized, the more money that can be made available for community care centers.

Regier said he believes the transition can occur before the 2001 deadline, and that services can be made available at the community mental health centers while the downsizing of Eastern State occurs.

"Services will appear when the need has arisen and funding begins to flow to the com munities,'' Regier said. ``Then the services there will be enhanced."

"We have a fear that we are trying to do this at too high a rate of speed," said legislative committee chairman Sen. Ben Robinson, D-Muskogee, who questioned whether Regier had adopted an "if they come, we may build it" attitude toward increasing services for the mentally ill in communities.

Rep. Darrell Gilbert, D-Tulsa, charged that Keating has always wanted Eastern State downsized or largely shut down as soon as possible and "doesn't give a rat about the mentally ill in the state."

Regier replied, "I don't think the governor is pushing a predetermined agenda."

Robinson asked Boehler if the governor's office was pressuring the Mental Health Department into moving too quickly on the issue. "We are not dragging our feet," she answered.

Mental health officials envision that community health centers will contract with local hospitals for beds for acute care patients. Rep. Joe Eddins, D-Vinita, questioned whether some hospitals in eastern Oklahoma will be given the time or resources by the state to develop such beds and the needed security and staffing.

Public hearings have been scheduled in four Oklahoma cities to give citizens the opportunity to air their thoughts about the downsizing of Eastern State and the transition of services to local communities.

Hearings have been scheduled for 9 a.m. Sept. 14 at the Muskogee Public Library; 1 p.m. Sept. 14 at Big Dawg Catering in Vinita; 9 a.m. Sept. 16 at the Oklahoma Department of Vocational and Technical Seminar Center in Stillwater; and 1 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Martin East Regional Library auditorium in Tulsa.