News & Events

Hearing on July 11 Features Nurse-Backed Mental Health Legislation Urgently Needed to Address Statewide Safety Crisis Boiling Over at Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital

BOSTON, Mass. – State lawmakers will hear testimony on Thursday, July 11 about legislation backed by the Massachusetts Nurses Association that will help tackle the increasingly dangerous conditions experienced by patients and staff at mental health facilities like Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, where a WCVB Channel 5 investigation revealed patient deaths, illicit drugs and alarming rates of assaults.

What: Legislative hearing on An Act Relative to Creating Intensive Stabilization and Treatment Units within the Department of Mental Health (S. 1163/H. 1719), sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton and Rep. Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset.

When: Thursday, July 11 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Room A-1, State House, Boston MA

The bill will create two Intensive Stabilization and Treatment units within the state Department of Mental Health – one for males and one for females. Patients exhibiting extreme aggression, highly assaultive behavior and/or self-destructive behavior would be admitted to a specialized unit. These units would be highly secure, physically separate, structured environments with specially trained staff.

“As health care professionals on the front lines, we see the danger posed to our patients, co-workers, and ourselves by individuals who may become violent and we must take proactive steps to address these dangers,” said MNA Vice President Karen Coughlin, a longtime Department of Mental Health nurse who will testify at the Thursday hearing. “While we believe individuals with severe behavioral health needs deserve the best care possible, the fact remains that there are patients who, despite the best efforts of treatment, pose a risk due to violent behaviors.”

“These patients are not receiving the specialized care they need, and that lack of intensive treatment is putting themselves, other patients and staff at risk,” said Coughlin, the former Vice Chair of MNA Unit 7, representing approximately 1,500 health care professionals, including registered nurses, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other licensed healthcare professionals working in multiple departments and agencies across the Commonwealth.

News reports that aired on Channel 5 this spring found an alarming crisis in the care and safety for both patients and staff at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital, a DMH facility touted as a “state-of-the-art treatment center.”

The WCVB reports, supported by the experience of frontline staff at the facility, paint a grim picture of the current conditions at WRCH, including patient overdoses, physical and sexual assaults, and hundreds of injuries to staff. As of May 2019, there had been at least 381 assaults reported at the facility, according to MNA records. State records obtained by WCVB showed 96 assaults with injuries requiring medical attention over the past three years.

These conditions are the direct result of a chronic lack of appropriate security protocols, inadequate training of staff and inadequate staffing levels to account for the type of forensic patients accused of crimes who are increasingly being treated at WRCH. Despite similar investigations five years ago revealing high rates of assaults at the facility, the DMH did not respond in an adequate way, allowing the problem to grow even worse.

Coughlin, who worked as a registered nurse for more than 34 years at Taunton State Hospital and has served on committees tasked with examining the state’s mental health system, said that the state promised to provide hospitals with “the support they need” to reabsorb violent patients when DMH closed the last men’s Intensive Stabilization and Treatment Unit in 2003. 

“All these years later, I have difficulty identifying the support we were promised,” Coughlin said. “In addition to the threat of physical violence we face every day, we are concerned about the diminished care to our other patients. We have less time to assess, counsel, educate and reassure our other patients. We have patients who are traumatized by witnessing acts of violence on a unit in which they should feel safe. This violence affects everyone – patients, staff and the family members of those trying to recover.”

Legislation to Address Mental Health Patient ED Boarding

An Act Relative to Creating a Pilot Program to Transfer High Acuity Behavioral Health and Dual Diagnosis Patients Away from Crowded Emergency Departments (S. 1112/H. 1064) will also be heard at the July 11 hearing.

For years, an influx of behavioral health patients into Massachusetts emergency departments has been clashing against an ED system in which patients are already waiting too long for care. This bill creates a pilot program at Taunton State Hospital to transfer medically stable, high acuity behavioral health and dual diagnosis patients away from overcrowded emergency departments until such time that an appropriate placement is found to meet the patient's needs.


A study conducted by the Mass legislature’s Mental Health Advisory Commission found that as many as 40,000 patients a year are boarding in our state’s hospital emergency departments, waiting for hours or even several days for appropriate beds and services. Research by registered nurse and Boston College associate professor Judith Shindul-Rothschild also demonstrates the existing ED wait-time problem in Massachusetts hospitals. For example, her research showed that patients at UMass Marlborough Hospital on average waited more than two hours to be evaluated in the ED.

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Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.