Lawmakers vow to fight Massachusetts hospital closing

Associated Press, March 22, 2012

Lawmakers opposed to a plan to close a state psychiatric hospital and shift patients and workers to other facilities said Thursday they would file legislation to block the shutdown and require an independent study of the entire Massachusetts mental health system.

The promise came as a large crowd, including unionized employees and families of patients at Taunton State Hospital, rallied at the Statehouse to save the 169-bed institution, the only one of its kind in southeastern Massachusetts.

Citing budget constraints, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration announced in January that it would close the more than 150-year-old facility, saying it was antiquated and no longer cost effective. Under the plan, 124 of Taunton’s inpatient beds would be consolidated into a new psychiatric hospital that is scheduled to open in Worcester this summer. Other patients would be transferred to a hospital in Tewskbury.

The administration has said no jobs would be lost under the plan, and that all 415 workers at the Taunton facility would be offered positions at the new hospital in Worcester, some 60 miles away.

State Senator Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, told the rally that he and other legislators opposed to the plan would seek to add language to the state’s budget for the next fiscal year that would block the closing of the Taunton hospital, or any other state mental health facility, until a special commission is formed and completes an independent analysis of the system.
The pledge drew cheers and chants of "stop and study!" from the crowd.

"We need to study before we act. We don’t act before we study," said Senator Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester.

Critics say shifting Taunton patients to the 320-bed facility in Worcester will put more pressure on an already overburdened system. The new hospital is also absorbing patients from the soon-to-be-closed Worcester State Hospital.

Speakers at Thursday’s event also said they feared the closure of Taunton State Hospital would limit available mental health services in southeastern Massachusetts, possibly forcing more people into prisons or homeless shelters.

"It has become a haven for lost and broken souls," said Mary Clements, a former Cape Cod resident who spent time at the hospital after being diagnosed with manic depression.

Without the care she received, Clements said, she would have likely wound up in prison but is now living on her own and studying to renew her nurse’s license.

Relatives of patients said the move would make it more difficult for them to visit family members. Karen Curtis, who lives in Harwich, estimated she would have to travel 2 1/2 hours to visit her son if he is moved to Worcester.

"The closure of Taunton State Hospital is a cold-hearted and dangerous decision that will have devastating consequences," said Karen Coughlin, who worked as a nurse at the hospital for 28 years and is now vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Employees say they are skeptical of the administration’s claim that no jobs will be lost and worry that workers who agree to transfer to Worcester could lose seniority rights.

Administration officials say under their plan, the state would maintain its current 626 statewide bed capacity. They have promised to ramp up efforts to treat more individuals with mental illness in smaller, community-based settings.