Commissioner leaves post

By Janine Weisman
March 1st, 2012

Massachusetts Department of Mental Health Commissioner Barbara Leadholm delivered the bad news to Taunton State Hospital staff Jan. 24: the 169-bed psychiatric facility would close by year’s end.

Leadholm won’t be in charge when the hospital is shuttered. Feb. 5 marked her last day on the job. She announced in December she was leaving to become a principal at Boston healthcare research and consulting firm Health Management Associates, Inc.

Leadholm was appointed in 2007 by Gov. Deval Patrick, who announced after his 2010 re-election he would not seek a third term in 2014. Her successor is Marsha Fowler, who had previously served as deputy commissioner.

“In my new role, I am continuing my commitment to people with mental illness and substance abuse conditions gaining access to services which all citizens have and want access to. I hope to bridge and work with the larger systems, some of which at times appear to be separate,” Leadholm said via e-mail.

Leadholm’s admirers say she transformed mental health treatment in Massachusetts, making the system flexible, community and recovery-based. Her critics say she carried out the Patrick administration’s budget cuts on the backs of seriously ill people with no other place to go.

The pending closing of the Taunton facility – one of only six state-operated mental health facilities in Massachusetts – surprised many advocates for the mentally ill and their frontline caregivers. After the October 2009 closing of the 16-bed Quincy Mental Health Center, the Taunton hospital became the South Shore’s only psychiatric facility.

“Cowardly,” is how Massachusetts Nurses Association spokesman David Schildmeier describes Leadholm’s timing on Taunton. “She was running out the door,” he says.

Leadholm’s tenure saw some unpopular decisions during a time of significant budget cuts. Her budget decreased 8.1 percent over the last three fiscal years, ranking Massachusetts 11th among states with mental health spending cuts, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts.

The state plans to move 124 of Taunton’s beds to the new 320-bed Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, expected to open by late summer, and the remainder to Tewksbury State Hospital. Leadholm managed the design and groundbreaking of the new Worcester facility, which has 34 fewer beds than the two hospitals it was originally planned to replace: the aging Worcester State Hospital and Westboro State Hospital, which closed in 2010. The loss of beds at Burbank Hospital in Fitchburg and St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester adds to the shortage.

Leadholm spearheaded the “Community First” policy emphasizing treatment for mental illness in community settings like group homes instead of state hospitals. Her staff reviewed the reasons for longer hospital stays and focused on reducing the barriers to discharge, developing individual treatment plans that identified supports and services necessary to meet the needs of patients for transition to living in the community.

“With Barbara, the system really did change,” says Massachusetts Association for Mental Health Deputy Director Timothy O’Leary, who praised Leadholm’s leadership in a tough economy. “She moved the department from what I would call a program focus to an individual focus.”

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