Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake Shore Hospital Authority

Lake Shore Hospital Authority: After the Innuendo, Misinformation & Foot-Dragging About Meridian, the Observer Did an On-Site Tour

Meridian Administrative Hdq. with headline: After extended foot dragging, the LSHA agreed to tour of Mreidian. This is what it will find.
Columbia County Observer graphic & photo

More LSHA stories are here.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – After two years plus of foot-dragging since the abandonment of Shands at Lake Shore Hospital, and over a year after Meridian Behavioral Healthcare offered to occupy the vacated Authority hospital, part-time Authority Manager Dale Williams and Governor’s board member Brandon Beil are finally taking a tour of Meridian’s Gainesville campus.

For the last year, rumors and fear-mongering about Meridian were spread throughout the Lake City/Columbia County community. While no one from the downtown business community would step forward, board member, former Public Defender Investigator Don Kennedy, and community activist Sylvester Warren were the frontmen for the naysayers.

Abutting Meridian is a public park and a dog park. There are no drug dealers, loitering, garbage – there are good neighbors.

Mr. Warren, after predicting an uptick in drug dealing and drug traffic around the hospital should Meridian occupy it, came out against the Meridian proposal. He called the business community a bunch of cowards for speaking out against Meridian to him, but not speaking out against it at the Authority.

The Latest Meridian Proposal in a Nutshell

Meridian takes ownership of the hospital, the parking lots, and the helipad.

Link to Meridian proposal: Page numbers added by the ObserverMeridian will renovate the exterior and interior of the hospital and license the facility with AHCA as a psychiatric hospital. The estimated cost of the renovation is about $11 mil. Meridian is not asking for Authority funding for this project.

Meridian will welcome a partnership with Florida Gateway College in nursing, primary care, culinary, and all practical levels of positions.

Meridian would welcome an urgent care company into the hospital.

Meridian is willing to lease space to a pharmacy.

Meridian will provide a primary care clinic. However, Meridian is willing to explore an association with a primary care provider.

This short list of Meridian proposals is not new to the Authority, which has been dragging its feet for over two years since the known abandonment of the hospital.

A Meridian Tour:
What the Part-Time Manager and Board member Beil will see

In November 2022, your reporter, after observing the Authority's inaction and its recommended razing of the hospital rather than doing business with Meridian, decided to see the Meridian campus in Gainesville for himself. Was the facility clean and maintained? Did the grounds have trash all around? Was there a visible police presence? Were the people friendly? Were there drug dealers lurking around corners?

The Meridian campus entrance. It speaks for itself.

Driving into the Meridian campus, the first building is the entrance and main building. The building used to be Farm Credit headquarters. It is deceptive in its size and seems to have miles of hallways, offices, conference rooms, a pharmacy, a call center, and primary care clinic behind the main entrance.

In the wings are also children’s outpatient care; adult outpatient care; counselors' offices, and offices for group therapy.

Psychiatry -- the folks that prescribed meds

Where ever one looked, Meridian was immaculate.

Your reporter asked if the psychiatrists did more than prescribe medications.

Mr. Savoie said that it is largely counselors and psychologists who provide the counseling explaining, "We have to use our people most effectively."

Mr. Savoie said that for efficiency, psychiatry, primary care, and the pharmacy are located in the same area.

Mr. Savoie said, "At this facility when clients are in counseling, we can discover their medical needs. We can bring them to primary care, and if they need meds, that can be taken care of on-site. We tried to serve the whole person."

What seemed like miles of hallways. One couldn't even find a smudge mark.

While walking through the miles of hallways, your reporter asked about court diversion programs. Mr. Savoie said, “We get involved in diversion and try to keep people out of jail.”

Mr. Savoie explained that VP-COO Lauren Cohn is very involved in drug court. If the clients meet the criteria and are willing to do the program and seek counseling services from us, and if they complete the program successfully, their charges are dismissed. Then they can engage in counseling and treatment long-term.

Meridian also engages with those in jail and are being released. Meridian begins counseling in jail and will continue counseling upon release.

President & CEO Don Savoie looks over a recently arrived commercial air fryer in the kitchen. A joint culinary project with Florida Gateway would seem to make sense.

Housed in a separate building is a 66-bed residential facility. Folks can go from a three-day stay in detox into the residential facility for 25 to 28 days. Patients can then enter outpatient care which includes intensive counseling -- three hours three days a week is the minimum. Meridian's goal is to help patients kick the habit, feel comfortable reentering society, and continue their lives.

Mr. Savoie told your reporter, "What you find with a lot of smaller agencies are agencies that are very specialized. If you can't treat the whole person, you are just making referrals. As a safety net provider, we try and keep the full continuum of services on our campus. And our campus is throughout the 13 counties, so we can send people through with coordinated care."

Meridian provides its own transportation. There is no hanging around for hours waiting for Suwannee Valley Transit to pick you up or drop you on your head.

The Crisis Stabilization Unit

The Crisis Stabilization Unit is undergoing a $1.5 mil renovation with funding from Alachua County, the City of Gainesville, and the Gainesville PD.

The Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) offers a full emergency screening staff that performs evaluations and crisis intervention for adults and children 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Crisis services address the needs of those facing an acute episode of psychiatric illness or substance use disorder. Meridian has found that after evaluation, crisis counseling may lessen the acuity permitting referral to traditional or intensive outpatient care. It may also result in admission to fully staffed, medically supervised inpatient services.

Mr. Savoie points out the CSU expansion.

Meridian is in the process of expanding the CSU, which presently has 30 beds for crisis stabilization, and 12 beds for addiction receiving.

This $1.5 million expansion is being funded by Alachua County, the City of Gainesville, and the Gainesville Police Department, each coming up with a third.

There will be a carport for the police and also a new 24-7, 365 walk-in area.

CEO Savoie said, "If you need help or feel you are in crisis, you will be able to walk in. These crises don't happen 8 to 5, Monday through Friday.”

Meridian also has a day rehab unit where daily living skills are taught.

Meridian Bought a Motel

Mr. Savoie in the driveway to the converted motel, now residential housing.

Next to the Meridian entrance is a motel that Meridian bought and converted into residential housing. Meridian clients can stay there anywhere from 15 to 45 days.

Meridian takes its investment in its clients seriously. Mr. Savoie said that Meridian invests the time in its clients and stabilizes them, and they don't want to lose them back to alcohol or drugs. The on-site residential facility allows people to come in "for a soft landing."


A group therapy room for new moms and their new babies. Meridian works with these new moms to help them get on the "right side of life."

At the top of this article, your reporter asked: Were there drug dealers lurking around corners? Was the facility clean and well-maintained? Did the grounds have trash all around? Was there a visible police presence? Were the people friendly?

After spending time walking the Meridian campus with President/CEO Savoie and Exec-VP Lauren Cohn, the simple answer is: Any community should be grateful to have Meridian in its community.

The grounds were litter free. No one was wandering around the campus. There weren’t suspicious vehicles doing drive-bys. The staff was friendly and professional, and those who have ended up on the wrong side of life could have hope that it was possible to change their situation.

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On Jan. 13, 2023, Paula from Tampa wrote:

Meridian looks like an impressive facility and campus. Meridian seems to offer a well-rounded recovery program.

All communities are facing an overwhelming drug problem. More often than not, addicts are struggling with mental health issues. They suffer with poor general and dental health, homelessness, low self esteem, a criminal record, unemployment, alienation from family and sadly, more often than one might imagine, death. Without the ability to treat the whole person, addicts return to the only thing they know, drugs and alcohol.

You not only need this facility in Lake City, we need them in every community because there are not nearly enough comprehensive programs available for the number of people who need them.

Any government body that would pass up this opportunity to help struggling members of their community work toward a brighter future by completing these programs, committing to their recovery and becoming a productive member of society is grossly out of touch.

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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