By Kyle Cheney
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 13, 2012…..An effort by southeastern Massachusetts lawmakers to stall the Patrick administration’s move to close Taunton Hospital appeared Monday to be gaining momentum in the Legislature, picking up support from lawmakers in both parties and across the state and increasingly clamorous demands for a study of statewide mental health needs.
“Sign me up,” said Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D-Holliston), who recounted her central Massachusetts district’s struggles to cope with the closure of Westborough State Hospital in 2010.
Dykema was one of a dozen lawmakers, legislative staff members, union officials and lobbyists who attended a briefing on the state’s cash-strapped mental health system, which analysts say has been gashed more deeply during recent rounds of budget cuts than any of Massachusetts’s New England neighbors’.
The briefing, led by Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton) and House Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset), including repeated calls by lawmakers for a “comprehensive, independent analysis” of the state’s mental health needs.
“I think we have to look at all of these things before any decision is made on closing a hospital,” said Sen. John Keenan (D-Quincy), co-chair of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
Keenan and other lawmakers argued the Patrick administration had mishandled plans to close Taunton hospital, in part because officials lacked key details about the demand for mental health beds across the state. They also said that when residents are turned away from mental health facilities, they often end up in emergency rooms, or even jails, draining additional resources and doing little to solve their health conditions.
The Patrick administration announced plans to close Taunton hospital last month, suggesting that its 169 beds be largely relocated to a new Worcester facility and to a facility in Tewksbury. Administration officials noted that the Worcester hospital would be a more modern, efficient setting for patients and would help the department live within its budget. Administration officials said the move wouldn’t represent a reduction in the 626 beds statewide but rather a shift of beds from southeastern Massachusetts to central Massachusetts.
In addition, last month, Department of Mental Health Commissioner Barbara Leadholm – who stepped down at the end of January and was succeeded by Marcia Fowler – said the southeastern Massachusetts region would be left with a sufficient array of services.
Officials in the Executive Office of Health and Human Services pointed to a 2009 study led by the Patrick administration that described a “strained” mental health system with “insufficient resources to meet the needs of adults with serious mental illness.” However, the report also found about 200 people within the system ready to be discharged but lacking community support. The report also noted that the commission had too narrow a timeframe to conduct a “more robust review” of the state’s community mental health centers.
But at Tuesday’s briefing, lawmakers of both parties made clear they felt the issue of mental health services across Massachusetts had been inadequately analyzed by state and private sector officials.
“Some people actually think Worcester is in western Massachusetts,” said Rep. Patricia Farley-Bouvier (D-Pittsfield). “The needs in western Mass can be quite different … This is not a parochial issue. The needs of our patients … are across the entire Commonwealth.”
Farley-Bouvier asked that lawmakers seeking to block the closure of Taunton State Hospital in favor of a study commission include a representative from western Massachusetts on the panel.
After the briefing, Pacheco and Haddad also convened a strategy session with labor groups to discuss ramifications for the workforce at Taunton Hospital and how they could help avert the closure.
Pacheco and Haddad said they met last week with the governor’s top health and human services aide, Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, and, in Pacheco’s words, had a “good back-and-forth discussion.” But Pacheco also said the meeting underscored the need for a new study – staff of the Department of Mental Health provided “contradictory” information about the state of Massachusetts’s mental health system, he said.
Haddad, the highest ranking member of the House to speak out against the closure of Taunton State Hospital – Senate President Therese Murray has raised concerned bout the plan in the Senate – emphasized the statewide ramifications of closing the southeastern Massachusetts facility.
“It’s about kids. It’s about elderly adults. There are not enough geriatric placements for mentally ill. We will probably disagree with the administration on the number of beds but that doesn’t mean the need isn’t there,” she said.
Lawmakers’ arguments received the backing of Laurie Martinelli, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Martinelli said that Massachusetts had cut its mental health budget by 8.8 percent in recent years, more than five times deeper than New Hampshire.
“On this front, we don’t have a lot to be proud of,” she said.
Martinelli argued that the closure of Westborough State Hospital had reduced the number of mental health beds in Massachusetts to 626 from 740. She said that of Massachusetts’s 6.4 million residents, about 30,000 to 50,000 are considered to have a “serious mental illness.”
Other lawmakers who attended Monday’s briefing include Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett), Rep. David Sullivan (D-Fall River), Rep. Elizabeth Poirier (R-North Attleboro), Rep. George Ross (R-Attleboro), Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton) and Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester).
Haddad also noted that Keenan’s co-chair on the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Rep. Elizabeth Malia (D-Jamaica Plain), would have attended but had another commitment. Pacheco noted support on the issue from Sens. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport), Thomas Kennedy (D-Brockton), Jack Hart (D-South Boston) and Anthony Petruccelli (D-East Boston).