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State’s Health Care Professionals Decry Legislature’s Deep Cuts in Human Services

State’s Health Care Professionals Decry Legislature’s Deep Cuts in Human Services

Urge Legislature to Pass Supplemental Funding to Protect Most Vulnerable Citizens

Warn Cuts Will Result in Increased Homelessness, Suicides, Homicides, Unnecessary ER Visits and Prolonged and Unnecessary Hospitalizations for the State’s Neediest Children and Adults

Canton, Mass. — Massachusetts Nurses Association’s executive board of Unit 7, the state chapter of healthcare professionals, which comprises 2,400 state-employed registered nurses, physicians, pharmacists, psychologists and other health professionals, has issued a statement today decrying the proposed budget cuts in human services and calling upon the legislature to pass supplemental funding to restore these cuts and to work to maintain essential services to protect the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth.

Stating that citizens who access state health care systems (such as those run by the Departments of Mental Health, Retardation, Public Health, Youth Services and the Soldiers’ Homes) already receive inadequate care, the most vulnerable citizens of the Commonwealth will suffer greatly under the new budget. The health care professionals, who work in state-operated hospitals, group homes, clinics, health centers and nursing homes, predict the cuts will result in an increase in homelessness, unnecessary visits to emergency rooms, prolonged and unnecessary hospitalizations, suicides and homicides.

In a letter to the legislature, the state’s health care professionals stated that in recent years patients ready to be discharged from state agencies, such DMH and DMR, find few if any places in the community that can support their needs. Additional cuts would mean they will continue to be retained in the most restrictive and costly environments or worse, discharged to the street and not allowed admission for treatment. They add that for years, staffing of programs at DMH and DMR has been inadequate and oftentimes unsafe. Further cuts will only accelerate this dangerous trend.

In DMH, with admissions closed, except for forensic admissions (court ordered evaluations and treatment), only criminally related patients will be admitted to state psychiatric facilities and patients with serious mental illness will go untreated. Under the current plan there will be less staff to treat and support patients with serious mental illness. This will lead to a significant number of these people becoming homeless and living on the street.

In short, some of the must vulnerable citizens will experience a significant increase in suffering and could even wind up paying the ultimate price of not being adequately and humanely treated for their mental illness or developmental disability (the mentally retarded). It will also increase the level of danger (specifically, increase risk for suicides and homicides) for these people and the communities in which they reside.

The impact on children will be devastating, according to the MNA. More than 300 children and adolescents currently remain on a waiting list for child mental health services. Due to the current shortage of pediatric psychiatric beds, these children have been housed for long periods of time in such inappropriate locations as acute medical/surgical units or adult psychiatric units and even the emergency room, waiting for a bed. In some cases, these children are inappropriately placed in the Department of Youth Services, receiving no proper psychiatric care while awaiting a proper placement. Budget cuts to this population will only compound their already inadequate level of care.

In the Department of Mental Retardation (DMR) there is already a significant waiting list for treatment. Cuts in services may mean that developmentally disabled citizens living at home will not get the care they need and that has been court mandated. Cuts in these services places increased burden on family members to provide care, many of whom are elderly themselves and in frail physical and financial health. We need to make sure the state keeps its promise to provide care for these disabled adults when their aging family members are no longer able to do so.

Cuts in transportation, day services, and respite care to ease the strain on family care providers, adds up to a recipe for disaster. Cost savings becomes cost shifting when staff who would have staffed these workshops and day programs are laid off, and when family members must quit their jobs or significantly reduce their hours, to care for a disabled family member at home.

The MNA health care professionals point out that this may be the worst time of all to make such drastic cuts in those programs. Often, in times of crisis, it is the state agencies and departments that are most needed and called into service. Many of these agencies have already stated they are ill prepared to handle mass casualty or biological or chemical disasters. Further cuts to these agencies would only further restrict their ability to respond at a critical time of need.

"Not only does this hospital pay its nurses well," Reever explained, "they also have made a commitment to work with the union to ensure safe working conditions and staffing levels (nurse-to-patient ratios) that allow nurses to practice safely and competently. We applaud them for their efforts."

In recent years, there has been a growing shortage of nurses both locally and nationally driven by hospital management practices that have cut nurse staffing levels, forced nurses to care for too many patients, and led to a dramatic rise in mandatory overtime to compensate for inadequate core staffing levels. Study after study published in the last year has clearly demonstrated that poor staffing levels are harming patients and that nurses are leaving the profession in droves due to poor staffing levels. Surveys of nurses have demonstrated that improvements in working conditions and dramatic increases in salaries are needed to alleviate the growing crisis.

The nurses’ contract is a 21-month agreement that will expire on September 30, 2003. For nurses at the top of the salary scale, the pact calls for an across the board 8 percent salary increase, with two 5 percent steps added to the salary scale over the life of the contract (18% total increase). All other nurses will receive an 8 % across the board salary increase, with three 5 % salary increases over the life of the contract (23% total increase).

"A contract settlement is not just about salary, it also demonstrates the commitment of NEMC to recruit and retain the best nurses to care for our critically ill patients," said Charles Schormann, chairperson for the NEMC local bargaining unit. "I hope that this will send a message that the nursing profession is alive and is a viable careen choice."