On any given day, dozens of Commonwealth Care Alliance’s patients, struggling with depression, anxiety, or some other mental illness, can be found in psychiatric hospital beds.
But fewer than half of them really need expensive hospital care. The others end up in hospitals because they have no other options for treatment, according to Commonwealth Care, a nonprofit health care organization that serves seniors, the poor, and people with disabilities.
This prompted the organization on Tuesday to open a 14-bed respite center — a residential facility for people who need 24-hour care for mental illness but who are not considered to be a danger to themselves or to others. They do not need the restrictive setting of a psychiatric hospital unit, which generally involves locked rooms and restraints.
The Brighton facility will treat patients at about half the cost of a psychiatric hospital. It is opening when mental health services are in short supply, even though demand is growing, according to industry specialists.
“So many people have been going to the most expensive and restrictive psychiatric hospitals who could be better served elsewhere — except the ‘elsewhere’ didn’t exist,” said Dr. Robert J. Master, the chief executive of Commonwealth Care Alliance.
The respite center, called Marie’s Place, after Master’s late wife, who was also a physician, could help take some of the burden off hospitals. Located in a blue Victorian house across the street from St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center, it cost about $1.7 million to build and renovate, and resembles a dorm more than a hospital.
It will house patients diagnosed with illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and mild dementia. The services will include counseling, addiction treatment, and nonmedical services such as housing assistance.
The respite program is an important cost-control measure for Commonwealth Care, which is both a provider and an insurer for people on Medicare, the government program for seniors and the disabled, and Medicaid, the government program for the poor.
A psychiatric inpatient hospital stay costs the organization about $1,100 per patient per day, while the respite program will cost closer to $600.
“We believe that at the end of the day we have a better overall product at a lower cost,” said Dr. Peggy Johnson, chief of psychiatry at Commonwealth Care.
The organization has a similar respite program with a dozen beds in Dorchester, which has been full since it opened last fall.
Health care providers across Massachusetts have experienced growing demand for mental health services. Admissions to psychiatric hospitals in the state climbed to 73,597 in 2013, from 50,363 in 2000.
People with low incomes, including those served by Commonwealth Care, tend to have higher rates of mental illness. Of adults across the country, 4.2 percent reported having a serious mental illness in 2013, according to federal government data. But for people below the federal poverty line, 7.7 percent reported mental illness.
“There are many, many services that are needed for people with mental illness,” said Laurie Martinelli, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
This includes inpatient hospital beds, outpatient counseling, and services that fall somewhere in between, such as respite programs, she said.
Commonwealth Care Alliance, Martinelli said, is filling a need.
“The old way, just keeping these people in the hospital, is expensive and might not meet their needs. If they can be released and be taken care of in a lower-cost setting, that makes all the sense in the world.”
David Matteodo, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Behavioral Health Systems, a trade group that represents psychiatric hospitals, said he welcomes the respite facility — as long as it is used for the right patients.
“If this is an appropriate setting for people, and this is what they need, it’s wonderful,” Matteodo said.
“My concern is they’re not diverting people who need inpatient care to alternative facilities to save money. This is something the oversight agencies need to watch.”