News & Events

House agrees to close Taunton Hospital

House agrees to close Taunton Hospital

By Matt Murphy

State House News Service

Posted Apr 25, 2012 @ 08:04 AM
Last update Apr 26, 2012 @ 01:10 AM

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House lawmakers on Tuesday night agreed to allow the Patrick administration to move forward with plans to close Taunton Hospital, but ordered the Department of Mental Health to preserve at least 30 inpatient beds in the southeast region of the state.

The governor’s plan to wring savings out of the state’s mental healthcare system by closing Taunton Hospital has proven to be one of the most contentious proposals of the fiscal 2013 budget debate, with lawmakers from the region in both the House and Senate protesting the move since it was outlined in January.

After the House Ways and Means Committee adopted the governor’s recommendation in its original budget blueprint, the House on Tuesday night adopted an amendment allocating an additional $8.5 million to the Department of Mental Health and directed the agency to contract for 30 vendor-operated continuing care inpatient beds in the southeastern region of Massachusetts.

The amendment represented a compromise with some state representatives who wanted to block the closure until a more comprehensive study of mental health needs of the region could be assessed.

“The Ways and Means Committee was dealt a bad hand when the administration baked in the savings to the budget. They did the best they could under extremely difficult circumstances,” Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) told the News Service after the vote.

Haddad had been a vocal opponent of the Taunton Hospital closing, and though she said she still wasn’t happy with the loss of services in her region, she felt the House budget took a step forward by creating an independent commission that will be tasked with examining the state’s mental healthcare system.

Under the amendment, the commission will conduct a “comprehensive review and evaluation of the commonwealth’s inpatient mental healthcare system including, but not limited to, the statewide network of community-based services and support and the continuum of care in all regions of Massachusetts.” If the amendment survives budget deliberations, a report must be filed with the Legislature by Dec. 28, 2012.

Debate ground to a halt for hours Tuesday night as members milled about the House chamber with little official activity transpiring, and House leaders met behind closed doors crafting the compromise. After the initial amendment was published, more time passed before a revision emerged describing the membership of commission.

The amendment was approved on a voice vote, and only Rep. Shaunna O’Connell (R-Taunton), Rep. David Sullivan (D-Fall River) and Rep. Elizabeth Malia, the House co-chair of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee, gave brief remarks endorsing the plan.

Malia said lawmakers had “a lot to learn” from the commission, and said much more needs to be done restore lost funding over the years for mental health services that addresses the quantity and quality of care.

The commission will consist of nine members, including a Democrat and a Republican from both the House and Senate, one appointee from the governor, one representative of the Arc of Massachusetts, one member from the Association of Behavioral Health Systems, one representative of the Disability Law Center, and one from the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society.

“It’s not everything we wanted, but this is the first step in saving Taunton hospital,” said O’Connell, a Taunton Republican.

The Patrick administration’s plan would close Taunton Hospital by the end of 2012, shifting the bulk of its 160 inpatient beds to a new state-of-the art facility in Worcester with a small number being transferred to Tewskbury, about 60 miles from Taunton.

While the administration said the closure would help DMH live within a reduced budget and dovetails with the state’s focus on community-based services, opponents have said the decision would leave that region of the state without any long-term mental health care beds.

“There are a set of people who can’t survive unless they’re in a highly monitored facility that speaks to their needs 24 hours a day,” Haddad said.

Administration officials have also argued that a large number of patients at Taunton Hospital are not from that region, and while the hospital will close the state will maintain its current level of 626 inpatient mental health beds.

Asked whether 30 beds would be sufficient to support the patient need in the region, Haddad said, “We don’t know.”

The compromise reached by the House still faces an uncertain fate in the Senate where Senate President Therese Murray of Plymouth has raised serious concerns about the closure plan.

Asked in March about the Patrick administration’s contention that even without Taunton, the southeastern region would be left with 32 beds in Fall River and Pocasset, Murray said, “The hospitals are already suffering and you have people in the ERs waiting to get into the few beds they have so we need a bigger presence than that.”

Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), the Senate assistant majority leader, said she believes “the Senate as a whole” would demand a comprehensive study before any changes are made the mental health system.

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