News & Events

MNA wages campaign to protect psych beds in Central Mass.; HealthAlliance plan to close inpatient unit in Fitchburg will hurt access to care

MNA members, along with mental healthadvocates, concerned patients, family members,community leaders and elected officials,packed a recent state Department of PublicHealth hearing at HealthAlliance HospitalBurbank campus in Fitchburg to voice strongopposition to the proposed closing of its 15-bedadult psychiatric unit.

The MNA and the National Alliance onMental Illness Massachusetts have made theBurbank closing a rallying cry to draw publicand legislative attention to the issue of accessto mental health services, attracting significantmedia attention to the cause, placing ads inlocal newspapers and mobilizing policy makersto focus on this growing crisis.

In an effort to decide how it will addressthe plans of the hospital’s corporate owners,HealthAlliance Hospital (which is part of theUMass Memorial Health Care System), thestate DPH took more than four hours of testimonyfrom public officials, nurses, communitymembers and people who have used, or areusing, mental health services. "There is a greatneed for secure inpatient facilities. Our patientsdeserve to be cared for close to their homes,"stated Yvonne Senecal, RN, a psychiatric nurseon the Burbank unit and chair of the MNAlocal bargaining unit. "The staff at BurbankBehavioral Health Unit is made up of skilledand caring professionals. We are capable ofsafely dealing with mental health emergenciesand acute care treatment. We have the skill;HealthAlliance needs to have the will to providethis vital service for our patients."

State Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster,chairwoman of the Joint Committee onMental Health and Substance Abuse, said sheis concerned that, if Burbank closes its mentalhealth unit, it will set a trend and spill over intoother hospitals. She said that as more facilitiesclose, it would become more difficult forpatients to get to where they can receive treatmentand for their families to visit them.

"We don’t have a bus to get them to wherethey are going to send them," she said.

State Rep. Steven L. DiNatale, D-Fitchburg,echoed Flanagan’s concerns about the lack oftransportation in the area and said the peopleinvolved are vulnerable. "We’re talking aboutthe people of our communities who are forgottenexcept by their family members," he said.

DiNatale said the plans by the hospital strikehim as more out of concern for the bottom lineand less out of concern for people with severemental illness.

MNA President Donna Kelly-Williams alsospoke against closing the mental health unit.She said there is no financial or clinical justification for closing the Burbank facility. "If ithappens, local people who are experiencing anacute mental health crisis will receive substandardcare, travel long distances for care or gowithout care altogether," she said. "Some willend up homeless, some will end up in our correctionsfacilities and some will end up dead."

The DPH also heard from Fitchburg DeputyPolice Chief Philip Kearns, who read a statementfrom Police Chief Robert A. Demouraadvocating to keep the mental health unit open,saying people with mental illness who are leftuntreated and out on the streets may end uparrested by police officers who are not trainedto identify them as mentally challenged.

"Our officers take more than 1,000 peopleinto custody each year," he said. "We uphold thelaw and take criminals off the streets. Mentalhealth patients need emergency workers to takethem to a hospital—not a jail cell."

After two stints in the HealthAlliance HospitalBurbank campus inpatient psychiatricunit in 1998, Fitchburg resident Pat Lozeaureturned to the campus Wednesday for the firsttime in 12 years to fight against proposed plansto close the facility.

"This is a big move on my part. I’m overwhelmedby the whole situation, but I reallywanted to have my say," Lozeau said. "Fortunately,I got the help I needed, when and whereI needed it and I’m here today. However, I don’twant to see anyone have to travel miles and milesto get the help they need, when they need it."

"If and when these services end, the citiesof Fitchburg and Leominster will be left withoutlocal inpatient and partial hospitalizationservices," said Guy Beales, president of theNational Alliance on Mental Illness in NorthCentral Massachusetts. He added that the nextclosest inpatient psychiatric units are locatedin Gardner, Clinton, Worcester and Marlboro.

Judy Smith-Goguen, an MNA member andpsychiatric nurse at another area hospital, testifiedthat her employer’s claims of being ableto "absorb" Burbank’s patients are questionable.She pointed out that her unit is full everyday with patients from across the state and shequestioned the economic justification for theclosing. "I find it deplorable that this hospitalsystem is now saying that they are closing thisunit because they feel that their alternative willprovide better care for patients. This is a hospitalsystem that has reported a profit to the stateof over $130 million over the last 18 months.They can well-afford and have a duty to providethis vital and necessary service to patients withmental illness rather than cast them aside."

The MNA is using this closing as a springboardfor an ongoing effort with policymakersand advocates to prevent future closings andas a rallying cry for a campaign to repair thestate’s mental health care safety net.