State officials have abandoned a preliminary plan to slash the number of beds that will remain available at Taunton State Hospital for long-term psychiatric patients, a proposal that appeared to violate an agreement with local lawmakers and hospital workers.
Under that plan, aired at a meeting with nurses earlier this month, 27 of the 45 beds set aside for long-term care as a part of the negotiated agreement would have been assigned instead to prisoners and others undergoing short-term, court-ordered psychiatric evaluations.
The plan to set aside these so-called forensic beds had rankled hospital workers and legislators who fought during recent state budget negotiations to prevent closure of the 150-year-old institution and to keep the 45 beds for local patients with chronic mental illnesses.
“Forensic units are not ‘continuing care’ beds. . . . If the intent was to have it be forensic care beds, we would have written ‘forensic care’ beds,” said Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who crafted the budget item.
After the Globe learned of the Aug. 1 meeting and questioned the administration, the Department of Mental Health downplayed the proposal for forensic beds and eventually reversed course.
“That was a preliminary plan. It was not the final plan,” said Alec Loftus, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
The Globe obtained documents pertaining to the meeting, which indicate that the state had already begun negotiating with the nurses union to staff two forensic units at Taunton State Hospital, totaling 27 beds.
Taunton State Hospital currently has 169 beds, 25 of which are forensic beds for patients who typically stay for a few weeks of observations and tests. The remaining 144 continuing care beds serve psychiatric patients from Southeastern Massachusetts, many of whom stay for months or years.
As the hospital downsizes — a result of recent state budget cuts — the new plan would have left only 18 spots for these long-term patients, and forced many patients and families to seek inpatient treatment as far away as Worcester.
“That is not what was supposed to happen, that is not what we were fighting for,” said Karen Coughlin, a Taunton State Hospital nurse and representative of the nurses union.
The Department of Mental Health did not oblige requests for interviews with state officials who attended the Aug. 1 meeting, but issued an initial statement last Friday saying, “We are still developing our plan to transition to 45 continuing care beds at Taunton. This will be implemented to the letter of the law for the best interests of the individuals we serve.”
In an amended statement Tuesday, Loftus said, “We finalized our plan, and in that plan all 45 beds at Taunton will be continuing care beds. That plan will be implemented in the spirit and the letter of the law for the best interests of the individuals we serve.”
“There will not be any forensic beds,” Loftus clarified.
Responding to the news, Pacheco said, “I’m pleased that, as I understand it, they will comply with the language as set forth in the conference committee budget agreement.”
“I think that’s a good thing,” said Coughlin. “I think the full intent of the legislation was for continuing care beds for those patients in the Southeast area who need long-term continuing care.”
Despite this resolution, many patients will still be discharged or transferred from Taunton State Hospital in the coming months. Governor Deval Patrick had planned to withdraw funding for the hospital altogether, but lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to secure $5.1 million to support partial operations at Taunton for the next year.
As part of the budget compromise, the state will commission an independent study to assess the state’s mental health needs. A report to the Legislature, due Dec. 28, is expected to include an updated estimate of the number of inpatient beds needed in the state.
The Patrick administration has suggested that Taunton patients could receive treatment at a new state mental health facility that opened Thursday in Worcester. The Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital will feature areas called “downtown” and “neighborhood” that mimic the environments patients may encounter as they reenter the community.
Despite these touches, some mental health advocates remain skeptical.
“The building isn’t going to make people recover faster,” said Brenda Venice, head of the Greater Fall River chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “You need time; you need family participation.”
Venice, who has two adult children with mental health issues, described the hardship of driving from Fall River years ago to inpatient psychiatric hospitals near Worcester and Marlborough to visit her then-teenage daughter. “We were doing more traveling than we were spending time with her,” she said.
Taunton nurse Ellen Farley added that hospitalized patients recover more smoothly when they can leave the hospital for brief, and then longer and longer, visits with friends and family in the communities where they will eventually live.
For 45 patients and their families, she said the final Department of Health plan could signal good news.
“Hopefully the family members who fought so hard to keep Taunton open will be able to keep their loved ones here if need be,” said Farley.