2011 News

MNA wages campaign to protect psych beds in Central Mass.; HealthAlliance plan to close inpatient unit in Fitchburg will hurt access to care


MNA members, along with mental health advocates, concerned patients, family members, community leaders and elected officials, packed a recent state Department of Public Health hearing at HealthAlliance Hospital Burbank campus in Fitchburg to voice strong opposition to the proposed closing of its 15-bed adult psychiatric unit.

The MNA and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts have made the Burbank closing a rallying cry to draw public and legislative attention to the issue of access to mental health services, attracting significant media attention to the cause, placing ads in local newspapers and mobilizing policy makers to focus on this growing crisis.

In an effort to decide how it will address the plans of the hospital’s corporate owners, HealthAlliance Hospital (which is part of the UMass Memorial Health Care System), the state DPH took more than four hours of testimony from public officials, nurses, community members and people who have used, or are using, mental health services. “There is a great need for secure inpatient facilities. Our patients deserve to be cared for close to their homes,” stated Yvonne Senecal, RN, a psychiatric nurse on the Burbank unit and chair of the MNA local bargaining unit. “The staff at Burbank Behavioral Health Unit is made up of skilled and caring professionals. We are capable of safely dealing with mental health emergencies and acute care treatment. We have the skill; HealthAlliance needs to have the will to provide this vital service for our patients.”

State Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said she is concerned that, if Burbank closes its mental health unit, it will set a trend and spill over into other hospitals. She said that as more facilities close, it would become more difficult for patients to get to where they can receive treatment and for their families to visit them.

“We don’t have a bus to get them to where they are going to send them,” she said.

State Rep. Steven L. DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, echoed Flanagan’s concerns about the lack of transportation in the area and said the people involved are vulnerable. “We’re talking about the people of our communities who are forgotten except by their family members,” he said.

DiNatale said the plans by the hospital strike him as more out of concern for the bottom line and less out of concern for people with severe mental illness.

MNA President Donna Kelly-Williams also spoke against closing the mental health unit. She said there is no financial or clinical justification for closing the Burbank facility. “If it happens, local people who are experiencing an acute mental health crisis will receive substandard care, travel long distances for care or go without care altogether,” she said. “Some will end up homeless, some will end up in our corrections facilities and some will end up dead.”

The DPH also heard from Fitchburg Deputy Police Chief Philip Kearns, who read a statement from Police Chief Robert A. Demoura advocating to keep the mental health unit open, saying people with mental illness who are left untreated and out on the streets may end up arrested by police officers who are not trained to identify them as mentally challenged.

“Our officers take more than 1,000 people into custody each year,” he said. “We uphold the law and take criminals off the streets. Mental health patients need emergency workers to take them to a hospital—not a jail cell.”

After two stints in the HealthAlliance Hospital Burbank campus inpatient psychiatric unit in 1998, Fitchburg resident Pat Lozeau returned to the campus Wednesday for the first time in 12 years to fight against proposed plans to close the facility.

“This is a big move on my part. I’m overwhelmed by the whole situation, but I really wanted to have my say,” Lozeau said. “Fortunately, I got the help I needed, when and where I needed it and I’m here today. However, I don’t want to see anyone have to travel miles and miles to get the help they need, when they need it.”

“If and when these services end, the cities of Fitchburg and Leominster will be left without local inpatient and partial hospitalization services,” said Guy Beales, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in North Central Massachusetts. He added that the next closest inpatient psychiatric units are located in Gardner, Clinton, Worcester and Marlboro.

Judy Smith-Goguen, an MNA member and psychiatric nurse at another area hospital, testified that her employer’s claims of being able to “absorb” Burbank’s patients are questionable. She pointed out that her unit is full every day with patients from across the state and she questioned the economic justification for the closing. “I find it deplorable that this hospital system is now saying that they are closing this unit because they feel that their alternative will provide better care for patients. This is a hospital system that has reported a profit to the state of over $130 million over the last 18 months. They can well-afford and have a duty to provide this vital and necessary service to patients with mental illness rather than cast them aside.”

The MNA is using this closing as a springboard for an ongoing effort with policymakers and advocates to prevent future closings and as a rallying cry for a campaign to repair the state’s mental health care safety net.