Patient advocates and officials in communities south of Boston are lobbying to block the state Department of Mental Health’s plan to close Taunton State Hospital, saying it would leave Southeastern Massachusetts without a single bed for the mentally ill.
Taunton State Hospital, which opened its doors in 1854, has 169 beds and 410 employees. The state’s plan, aimed at trimming the budget, would shift 124 of the beds to the new Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital and 45 to Tewksbury State Hospital by Dec. 31. The Taunton facility’s employees would be offered positions at the Worcester facility.
Area officials, as well as mental health advocates, say shuttering the Taunton institution would be a terrible move.
“This would eliminate the South Shore’s capacity to house these patients,’’ said Kingston selectmen chairman Dick Arruda. “Moving people to Worcester is insane. How will their families get there to visit?’’
State Senate President Therese Murray, whose constituents rely on the Taunton facility, also expressed concern.
“We need mental health resources available to every community,’’ the Plymouth Democrat said in an e-mail. “We can’t leave Southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape and Islands without access to inpatient beds. Closing Taunton hospital without a plan for providing mental health services to that part of the Commonwealth is very concerning to me and to a lot of people.’’
Not all patients housed in Taunton State Hospital would be moved to Worcester and Tewksbury. The Department of Mental Health’s announcement said some would move into group homes or apartments in their communities, where they will have access to support services under the state’s “Community First’’ program. The program’s goal is to help individuals transition from institutional care to community-based, long-term support. Individuals experiencing severe difficulties could get treatment in local hospital emergency rooms.
But Murray and others say hospital emergency rooms don’t have the ability to provide services now available at Taunton State Hospital. “We can’t leave people with no place to go,’’ Murray said.
Marcia Fowler, state mental health commissioner, defended the plan to close the hospital, saying it was carefully thought out. Two years ago, Westborough State Hospital was shuttered due to earlier budget reductions. Patients from that facility were relocated to the Worcester State Hospital.
“We’ve come to this decision after a very long and thoughtful process,’’ Fowler said in a telephone interview, about the decision to close the Taunton hospital. “We really strongly feel that consolidating Taunton into Worcester State is absolutely in the best interest of the people we serve.’’
In a news release last month, the Department of Mental Health said it has held a series of community forums on the Community First policy. “At these conversations, the configuration of DMH inpatient capacity was discussed and all stakeholder feedback was considered as part of the decision to close Taunton State Hospital,’’ the release stated.
Karen Coughlin, a longtime nurse at Taunton State Hospital and vice president of the Massachusetts Nurses Association, called the state’s plan “a dangerous decision that will have devastating consequences for the mentally ill in our state.’’
“The workers are concerned for the patients and their families,’’ Coughlin said. “They are also concerned about the impact on emergency rooms and psychiatric services for the incarcerated. We feel this will exacerbate everything systemwide for both inpatients and outpatients.’’
Chris Aiello, Abington selectmen chairman, said that he was disappointed with the state’s decision, and that he would support a resolution to keep the Taunton hospital open.
“It seems there’s been a shortage of good mental health care for a long time,’’ Aiello said. “This is not only about the patients. This will be a blow to the economy. It’s terrible.’’
The Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness cited the important role Taunton plays in the state’s hospital system.
“Taunton State Hospital has been an anchor for all of Southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape, and the islands,’’ said Laurie Martinelli, the chapter’s executive director. “It’s a huge part of the system. What it will mean for family is that they will have to drive 75 miles or more to see patients.’’
State Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, and state Representative Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat, are spearheading a campaign to halt the closure until further study of the state mental health system can be done.
“They’re tinkering around the edges of our very fragile mental health system,’’ Pacheco said. “I’m calling for a pause here, to make sure taking a critical link out of the system is the right thing to do.’’
Pacheco said opposition to the hospital’s closing is widespread.
“It’s only been days since the state made the announcement, and we’ve already had a tremendous response,’’ he said. “Resolutions have been coming in from major cities as well as towns, and I’ve had well over 100 calls from the general public just in the last week alone.’’
Martinelli said the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness would back a resolution calling for further study of mental health services in Massachusetts.
“In 2004, the Department of Mental Health went to the state for the new Worcester facility and said they needed 740 beds,’’ Martinelli said. “It’s 2012, and there are only 626. That’s a huge decline from what they were asking for. We’re only asking that an independent study provide evidence that 626 beds are enough.’’
Mark Stankiewicz, Plymouth’s town manager, agreed that a study of the state’s mental health system is in order. “I think it would be a good idea to give it closer scrutiny,’’ he said. “We hate to lose anything that provides services to folks in our area.’’
Lakeville, Middleborough, and Raynham officials have all signed resolutions declaring their opposition to the hospital’s closing.
Raynham Selectman Don McKinnon said he was shocked the state would contemplate such a move. “People who are challenged in this way can’t speak for themselves,’’ McKinnon said. “It’s really sad the state would do this.’’
In its release, the Department of Mental Health said it is being guided by “the main tenets that individuals should live and be served in the least restrictive community settings whenever possible and that the community system must be strengthened to support that.’’Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.