April 1st, 2012

Opposition to Taunton State’s closure intensifies

Since the announcement of plans to permanently shutter Taunton Hospital at the end of 2012, opposition to the closure has intensified. With State Senator Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) leading the way, legislators, labor, religious and advocacy groups have begun to call for additional studies to keep the hospital open.

The hospital’s 169 inpatient beds will be moved primarily to a new state-of-the-art facility in Worcester with 45 going to Tewksbury Hospital.

Pacheco has been joined in the drive to keep the hospital open by Patricia Haddad, (D-Somerset), House speaker pro tempore and representatives from Attleboro, Mansfield and Seekonk, among others.

“We are continuing to try to build a broad-based coalition throughout the state and to educate members of the legislature,” says Pacheco. The issue recently took center stage at a House and Senate Ways and Means Committees budget hearing and the group held a rally at the State House to publicize the issue. The opposition is calling for an independent, comprehensive study to be done on the mental health system across the state and how cuts in the state budget have affected services.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Massachusetts is also supporting the efforts.

“The board, staff and membership of NAMI Massachusetts have become increasingly alarmed that the safety net for individuals with serious mental illness is woefully inadequate,” says Laurie Martinelli, executive director of NAMI Mass.

The main concern, says Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, (R-Taunton), is the effect this change will have on patients.

“First and foremost are the patients,” she says. “Taunton is the only hospital of its kind in the region and families will be unable to be involved in the care and treatment process when they are moved to Worcester.”

The closure would also affect the current 410 employees at the facility.

“That is a concern, too,” O’Connell adds. “We don’t like to see more than 400 jobs go away from a region that has been hit hard by the economy and high unemployment rates.”

Employees will be offered jobs within the system, however. Some may be able to stay locally in other DMH settings while there will be positions open at the new facility as well.

While the number of beds state-wide will stay at 626, those numbers are already too low, Pacheco says, quoting a 2004 study that called for a minimum of 740 beds.

“When we go below that number, that is when we see backups in the system, at hospital emergency rooms or even in jails,” he says.

According to Marcia Fowler, M.A., J.D., commissioner of the Department of Mental Health (DMH), all but 10 to 20 of the patients currently being treated at Taunton will be discharged before the closing. She also points to a more recent study by a 15-member commission that called for increased community services.

“The commission found that there were 200 people in our facilities who were discharge ready, waiting on available community placement,” she says.

While accepting that the increase in community settings is admirable, Pacheco says that is not enough. “We need to meet a range of public services. We are seeing the closure of 100 percent of the beds in the southeast. It is contributing to making the entire system less safe.”

The DMH has also done its own studies around the closure of Taunton Hospital.

“Over the last three years, we have done a comprehensive study,” says Fowler. “We have conducted six public forums in 2009 and 2010 to gather stakeholder input and as a result of that, we determined that the consolidation of Taunton with Worcester State Hospital was the best option. It is the option that maintains our current state-wide bed capacity. It is the option that maintains our current workforce and it will enhance treatment opportunities [in the new facility].”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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