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A Buffalo hospital that has helped thousands of Western New Yorkers deal with alcoholism, drug addictions and other psychiatric problems is now facing a serious problem of its own -- more than $11.4 million in unpaid debts.

But officials of the BryLin Hospitals expressed optimism about their long-term future Monday afternoon, even after seeking protection from more than 250 creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

The company faces a huge challenge, with money owed to doctors, lawyers, accountants, temporary employment agencies, food services and dozens of other businesses all over Western New York.

BryLin's debts include $566,280 to the Internal Revenue Service, $147,638 to New York State agencies, $199,433 to Kaleida Health, $118,973 to Niagara Mohawk, $66,049 to Verizon and $75,407 to Catholic Health Systems.

One local advocate for mental patients said it would be "terrible" if BryLin is not able to remain open.

But the hospital's president and chief executive officer, Eric D. Pleskow, said BryLin has no intention of shutting down, now or in the foreseeable future.

"The problems we are facing are temporary problems with vendors, but there will be no effect on the quality of patient care," Pleskow said. "Our number one priority at this time is to convey to our patients, the families of our patients, staff, physicians and others in the community that our doors will remain open . . . This is a reorganization. We're not closing our doors."

BryLin, with headquarters at 1263 Delaware Ave., filed a Chapter 11 petition asking for protection from more than 250 creditors who say the hospital owes more than $11.4 million in unpaid bills. In its court papers, the company said it has assets worth $7 million.

Under Chapter 11, a company in debt seeks time to reorganize its financial affairs without actually going into bankruptcy. Pleskow and a company attorney, William F. Savino, said BryLin plans to meet with its creditors and work on a payment plan.

"I am optimistic that we can work something out with creditors," Pleskow said.

Opened in 1955, BryLin operates an 88-bed psychiatric hospital at 1263 Delaware Ave., in addition to an addiction treatment facility in Alden and clinics in Buffalo and Williamsville. BryLin specializes in treating people with dementia, addictions and a wide range of psychiatric problems.

The company employs more than 300 people, including psychiatrists, counselors, nurses, hospital workers and clerical workers. In recent weeks, Pleskow said, BryLin has laid off "less than 10" workers -- mostly management people -- and has also cut back on overtime.

Dr. Balvinder S. Kang, medical director, believes there is more need than ever for BryLin's services because of the emotional turmoil caused by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and more recent anthrax incidents.

"We've already seen an increase in people needing treatment for anxiety, post-traumatic stress, insomnia and other, related problems since Sept. 11," Kang said. "The quality of care in our programs and services that we provide are immune from the business decision being made today."

What would be the impact on mental health care in this region if BryLin shut down?

According to the Western New York Healthcare Association, BryLin is the last privately owned, for-profit hospital among more than 35 hospitals in this region. There would be some "initial disruption" for patients and employees if BryLin closed, said William D. Pike, president of the association.

But in the long run, the services now provided by BryLin probably would be picked up by Buffalo General Hospital, Erie County Medical Center and other providers, Pike said.

"Ultimately, the system would recover," Pike said.

One advocate for mental patients in Western New York said the closing of BryLin would be a huge blow to a population that -- in her view -- is already badly underserved.

"BryLin is the best psychiatric hospital in the area, and to be honest, that isn't saying much," said Marcie Kelley, director of mental health peer connection at the Western New York Independent Living Project on Main Street.

"As a mental patient needing hospitalization, my three main choices would be BryLin, Buffalo General Hospital and the ECMC. BryLin is smaller than the others, and in my opinion, you get by far the best and most personal care there. If Bry-Lin goes down, our choices would be severely limited in Western New York."

Pleskow blamed BryLin's financial problems on a number of factors, including a computer software system that was installed in 1999 to address possible Y2K problems but was found to be unsuitable to the company's needs.

"We had huge problems with our billings, delays in our billings, from early 1999 to the middle of 2000," Pleskow said. "That's what really began our problems. We were unable to make timely payments to vendors for pharmaceuticals, food, medical supplies, tools and other items we needed."

Other factors include the drop in Western New York populations, the state's budget delays and the "low rate of reimbursement" that BryLin and other hospitals receive from insurance companies, Pleskow said.

The Chapter 11 petition was filed Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court by attorneys Savino and Daniel F. Brown Jr.

BryLin was founded by Pleskow's father, the late Leonard Pleskow of Amherst, considered a local pioneer in the treatment of mental health and addictions.

BryLin began by providing psychiatric treatment only, but in 1976 began treating people for alcoholism and drug addictions.

"My father was a pharmacist by trade," said Eric Pleskow. "He saw (in the 1950s) that there was a tremendous stigma attached to any kind of mental health treatment in Western New York, and he saw a great need for better treatment facilities."

That need still exists today, Pleskow said.


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