By Marc Larocque
Posted Feb 15, 2012 @ 12:15 AM
There is growing support among state legislators, including lawmakers from as far as Pittsfield, to block the proposed closure of Taunton State Hospital. Toward that end, they have called for a study on the effects that shuttering the facility could have on the Massachusetts mental health system.
“It’s our goal to create a critical mass of legislatures and advocates who will convince administration that the closing of Taunton State is a symptom of a wider issue,” said State Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset.
Haddad, along with State Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, organized a bipartisan meeting of legislators on Monday to discuss the issue.
Haddad said concerned legislators are now waiting for a report expected by the end of the week from Secretary JudyAnn Bigby, of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, about numerous issues surrounding the proposed closing of Taunton State Hospital, including transportation issues for families of mental health patients in southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape, and about the “bigger plan” for statewide access to mental health services.
Haddad said legislators are also in the process of gathering their own information. “Trust but verify,” she said.
During a brief phone interview, Department of Mental Health (DMH) Commissioner Marcia Fowler emphasized a “community-based” approach to mental health care to offset transportation issues, and the effect of the Taunton facility’s closing on local hospitals and jails.
Fowler said the DMH is continuing with its plans to shift Taunton State beds to Worcester and Tewksbury and “anticipates” Taunton State to be closed by the end of the year
“We serve approximately 20,000 people a year, and over 19,000 are served in the community,” said Fowler, pointing to programs offering rehabilitation for people based in their own housing, so-called mobile floating hospitals, group-living facilities and other programs.
Fowler said patient visits from family “can be” helpful in mental health treatment, but added that “the criteria for people being committed to a facility is that they are a danger to themselves and to others.”
She also said the DMH would work to “mitigate” travel hardships “in any way we can,” by placing patients into the DMH facilities with smaller numbers of beds in Pocasset, Fall River, Jamaica Plain, Boston and Springfield.
Fowler said patients’ stays in mental health facilities are “fairly short” nowadays, explaining that by December when Taunton State is closing, there will “probably be 20 less patients there than there are now.”
Asked if there was any procedure to potentially block the closure of Taunton State Hospital, Pacheco said the first option is to try to pass a study order in the legislature. Pacheco said that “would effectively stop the closing until a more comprehensive study is done on the entire mental health system” and on the effects of closing Taunton State.
Pacheco said the study order would be similar to the report on the state’s mental health services that was done in 2004, which was also the result of a legislative initiative, and concluded that 740 inpatient beds were needed (there are now 626 inpatient beds available in the state).
Pacheco said Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration’s proposal “isn’t necessarily off the table” but said it should not “be implemented in a reactionary way” in response to this year’s budget numbers without a comprehensive study.
Pacheco said he and fellow legislators “are simultaneously working on a legal plan” with volunteer lawyers who are helping if the Patrick administration will not compromise on its plan to close Taunton State without a truly comprehensive study on the mental health system and the proposed closure of the Taunton facility.
Republican state reps. Shaunna O’Connell, of Taunton, and Keiko Orrall, of Lakeville, are also pressing for more information on the effects of closing Taunton State.
O’Connell said she is reaching out to hospitals, including those owned by Steward Healthcare, for information on mental health patients that have to be admitted to emergency rooms because no inpatient mental health beds are readily available. The Southcoast Hospital group has already expressed its concerns about this issue.
Orrall said she doesn’t understand how it makes sense to shutter Taunton State’s mental health facility, while keeping the Department of Youth Services program on campus, when so much has been invested in the facility over recent years. She said the Patrick administration has not offered any information on this issue.