More than 40 speakers including a representative of Mayor Thomas Menino, state lawmakers, a city councilor, and medical professionals came out in force at a public hearing Friday to oppose the planned closure of a 15-bed detox unit at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain.
Some of the most compelling testimony came from recovering drug addicts and alcoholics — men and women of all ages and from many walks of life — who talked about how the specialized unit turned around a bleak chapter of their life.
A retired English professor from Roslindale, Conor Johnston, told the standing-room-only gathering of some 100 people that the unit’s medical and counseling staff helped him go through a safe detoxification, and guided him to face up to his love of the bottle.
“I recognized, finally, I was an alcoholic,” Johnston said at the event sponsored by the state Department of Public Health.
The hearing, held at the agency’s headquarters in downtown Boston, lasted 2½ hours. It was scheduled in response to Partners HealthCare’s announcement last month that it sought to surrender its state license to operate the inpatient unit and restructure its substance abuse services.
The unit treats patients who have other serious health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. It is one of two such high-level detox programs in the city.
State public health officials can require changes in the Faulkner plan or delay the shutdown, now slated for April, if they believe the needs of patients will not be met.
Faulkner officials have insisted they are not stepping away from their commitment to substance abuse treatment, simply changing how they serve this population to use more “state-of-the-art” services.
Two speakers from the hospital — Ed Liston-Kraft, vice president of clinical and professional services, and Dr. Scott Schissel, chief of medicine — were the only ones who supported the proposal at Friday’s hearing. They said they will still set aside six beds for detox purposes on the hospital’s general medical floors and those patients will have a specialized addiction team of clinicians to serve them. They said Faulkner will also be introducing a new outpatient program focusing on Suboxone, a drug that helps curb withdrawal symptoms of opiate-addicted patients and can help many patients go through detox at home.
“This is a clinically driven decision,” not one motivated by saving money, Liston-Kraft said.
Critics of the closure argued that Partners, the largest hospital company in the state, is hurting a vulnerable segment of the population at a time when there is a troubling rise in substance abuse, especially in Massachusetts, and a shortage of detox beds.
The 15 beds at Faulkner represent a small portion of the 881 detox inpatient beds statewide, but a big chunk of the high-level beds for the sickest patients, who can suffer life-threatening reactions if their detox is not carefully monitored. There are 140 such high-level beds in Massachusetts, of which 114 are in Worcester and 26 are in Boston, according to the Department of Public Health.
Aside from Faulkner’s 15 beds, there are 11 high-level beds at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton, the figures show.
Dr. Jacquelyn Starer, a physician in the Faulkner detox unit, criticized her hospital’s top officials for saying that the 15-bed unit is often not filled to capacity. She testified that administrators have chosen to understaff the unit, enabling only 10 or so patients to stay there safely, and have “falsely represented” the lack of 15 full beds as a “lack of need.”
Schissel, the chief of medicine, said in an interview last night that the hospital staffs the unit to meet its average daily patient census, which is 10.
In a letter from Menino that was read aloud, the mayor said it was “too risky to dismantle” the inpatient unit without creating the same number of beds on the general medical floor for detox patients. But he praised the plan to create a Suboxone outpatient clinic.
Some unions representing health care workers also spoke against the closure.
Betsy Barry — a 48-year-old mother of three from Easton and the niece of Kitty Dukakis, wife of the former governor — told the gathering about her stay in the Faulkner unit. She said it turned around her life after she became addicted to narcotic painkillers, which she began using for an autoimmune disorder.
Barry read a statement from Dukakis, who is spending the winter in Los Angeles. Dukakis, who has faced her own addiction problems, said she opposed the closure because the state has a shortage of detox beds. She said that when her niece called her urgently for help one day, she struggled to find an available bed, and she pitied those who “didn’t have a former first lady of the Commonwealth to go to bat for them.”