August 24th, 2012

Study to determine fate of Taunton State Hospital

The tug-of-war between state administration and patients, families, health workers and local lawmakers from southeast Massachusetts over the closure of Taunton State Hospital continues to capture headlines and the attention of mental health advocates across the Commonwealth.

In July, Gov. Deval Patrick vetoed $5.1 million in funding, which would have kept Taunton State Hospital up and running, although with only 45 of its 169 beds. However, pressure from constituents prompted legislators to unanimously override the governor’s veto.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) reports that she received a phone call from the administration in January informing her that Taunton State Hospital would be closed. “We were not given a good explanation as to how community services would be beefed up,” she says.

The Commonwealth plans to move patients from Taunton to Tewksbury State Hospital or to the new Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, distances of 50 to 100 miles, respectively. Since research indicates that family involvement helps in the recovery process, Haddad says that a “50-minute ride on a good day” prohibits frequent visits for most families. Although the administration has indicated the possibility of subsidized transportation, Haddad raises the challenges in funding such an operation.

Acknowledging the need for a new state-of-the-art facility but requesting consideration for fair distribution of beds, Haddad points out that the western, northeastern and central parts of the state all have long-term beds and publicly funded facilities. “There is nothing from Boston south for us,” she says. She feels strongly that patients’ and family needs are being ignored. “This is not about a building,” Haddad says. “It’s about administering to those in need, about a methodology. We might not have brightly painted walls, but if you have [staff] who cares, that shouldn’t matter.”

Haddad also refers to the often-overlooked forensic side of closing beds and relocating patients. “We are supposed to be moving toward community based services, but there are people involved with the law who can’t survive in the community,” she says. “The Worcester mayor didn’t know this population would be going to Worcester.”

Before a final decision is made, an independent study will evaluate whether to close Taunton. The Ways and Means Committee earmarked $100,000 to hire an outside consultant, according to Haddad. The advisory committee will consist of the chairs of the House and Senate Committees on Ways and Means, and the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Additionally, the commissioners of mental health, public health and insurance will sit on the committee. A number of health care organizations will also participate, including the Association for Behavioral Healthcare; the Massachusetts Hospital Association; the Massachusetts Nurse Association; Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts; Health Law Advocates; and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts (NAMI Mass), among others.

The committee is charged with providing a report to the legislature no later than Dec. 28, 2012 that contains an assessment of the impact on the southeastern part of the state if Taunton State Hospital closes, as well as a more broad evaluation of the Commonwealth’s inpatient services and mental health bed capacity.

Laurie Martinelli, executive director of NAMI Mass, referred to a statement NAMI issued in support of the override that requests the state “determine the needs for continuing care beds for the entire Commonwealth – rather than a dollar-driven policy.”

Haddad expresses discomfort with the way the situation has been handled. “Nothing about this feels right,” she says, “but all’s fair in love, war and budget making.”

The Department of Mental Health made the following statement on the subject: “The department’s FY2013 appropriation provides for the necessary operating dollars to support the new Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital (WRCH) and realign the distribution of our 626 continuing care inpatient beds. The department will, for the time being, maintain 45 inpatient beds at Taunton State Hospital and consolidate 79 of Taunton’s beds into WRCH. Additionally, DMH will expand bed capacity at Tewksbury Hospital Hathorne Unit by 45 beds. The governor’s FY2013 budget supports the DMH Community First initiative, opens the new WRCH and provides the right community supports for individuals with mental illness living in the community.”

By Phyllis Hanlon

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