News & Events

Fitchburg psych units closing decried

By Kevin Doherty,
Posted: 01/30/2011 06:38:05 AM EST

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FITCHBURG — It wasn’t easy for Pat Lozeau to return to the HealthAlliance Hospital Burbank Campus inpatient psychiatric unit this December.

A former patient at the psychiatric unit in 1998, Lozeau said the day brought back old memories, and she found it difficult to speak about her experiences in a room packed with more than 100 people.

But Lozeau, of Fitchburg, said she knew how critical the psychiatric unit had been for her and wanted to speak out against plans to shutter the 15-bed psychiatric unit at the Dec. 1 public hearing before Department of Public Health officials.

"Fortunately for me, I got the help I needed when I needed and where I needed it and I’m better now," she said. "However, I don’t think anyone should have to travel miles and miles to get the help they need when they need it. We need a psychiatric unit in this community."

The doors to the inpatient psychiatric unit at the Burbank Campus closed Jan. 21. The action came despite residents and state officials speaking out against the closing during the public hearing and a letter from Alice Bonner, director of the state’s Health Care Quality Division of the DPH, asking hospital officials to reconsider the decision to close the unit.

HealthAlliance officials said they decided to close the unit to improve service for patients who usually go straight to the emergency room.

"The majority of our patients come to our emergency department and then are treated," said

HealthAlliance spokeswoman Mary Lourdes Burke. "Some are discharged home and others may need inpatient care."

Under the new plan, mental health counselors and psychiatric nurses will provide more efficient treatment immediately upon a patient’s arrival, she said.

"What’s going to happen after the emergency room," said Jane McFadden of Fitchburg. "I’m speaking on behalf of my son, who suffers from schizophrenia. He can’t speak for himself, so I know I need to do it for him and all the people who cannot do it for themselves.

"We need to have something in the Leominster and Fitchburg area that people can depend on."

Patients, who now need inpatient psychiatric care will be evaluated to determine where they should be sent, Burke said.

Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, said she’s very disappointed with hospital officials’ decision to follow through with the closure.

"I’m concerned with how far local residents will have to travel now to seek psychiatric help when they could have gone to the Burbank Campus if beds were available," Flanagan said. "We don’t have the public transportation available here for family members to get to where these alternative hospitals. There’s no train to Worcester. What happens when family members can’t be part of the therapy and exit plan process because they can’t get to the hospitals?

"The fact that patients will be further from home will be devastating," she added. "We are talking about people in crisis with mental instabilities, who are going to these facilities because they need help."

She applauded the hospital’s new improvements to the emergency room, but said they wouldn’t solve the problem of having no inpatient psychiatric beds.

"The emergency room is a place where people are treated and released," Flanagan said. "It’s not a place people should be treated for on days at time while they find an inpatient bed for them."

Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, said he wishes the hospital would consider putting an inpatient psychiatric unit into the Leominster campus.

"I’ve been in touch with one family that has to travel to Attleboro now to get services they might have been able to get at the Burbank campus," DiNatale said. "It’s just unacceptable not to have a psychiatric unit in a community of 80,000 people."

DiNatale said he is looking into legislation that will prevent hospitals from closing down mental-health units and other services in the future if the closing is not in the best interest of residents in the surrounding communities.

The problem with sending patients to the closest inpatient psychiatric units, which are located in Gardner, Worcester and Concord, is most of the units are already close to capacity, noted Laurie Izzo, director of Nursing for Behavior Health at Emerson Hospital in Concord.

"We generally run close to capacity," Izzo said. "I can tell you that our emergency department has seen more psychiatric patients in the past few months than ever before, and it is often a challenge to secure inpatient beds, especially for children and adolescents. It is difficult for both the patient and the family when they are hospitalized far away from their homes."

She said it is also more difficult for social workers to find appropriate out-patient support in communities they don’t know very well.

Guy Beales, president of North Central Massachusetts National Alliance on Mental Illness, urged the hospital to keep the psychiatric unit in the best interest of a community with more than 80,000 residents.

The closing will cause unnecessary financial and mental stress on patients and their families, Beales added.

"I can speak with some authority about traveling to Emerson Hospital," he said. "Since Sept. 30, I have visited Emerson 21 times, for a total mileage, from my home, of 1,120 miles and a driving time of more than 27 hours. My out-of-pocket parking expenses were $135, and I estimate that gasoline cost another $125."