UMass Memorial Medical Center, responding to sharp criticism from mental health advocates and the state, has revised its plan to close 13 psychiatric beds in Worcester and transfer patients to other Central Massachusetts hospitals.
Worcester’s largest hospital submitted the updated plan late last week in response to officials at the state Department of Public Health, who said they were deeply concerned that the hospital’s original proposal would curtail patients’ access to services.
UMass Memorial officials reiterated that 70 percent of the mentally ill patients they treat now do not need to be in a full-service hospital. They said they expect to transfer an average of 1.2 patients a day to other facilities in the region.
And, to help Worcester families visit patients, UMass Memorial said it would run a twice daily shuttle to other hospitals in Devens, Webster, Southbridge, and Westborough. These sites range from about 10 to about 30 miles from Worcester.
The shuttle would run for six months and would cost about the same as public transit, hospital officials said.
“We listened to families’ access concerns,” said Patrick Muldoon, the president of UMass Memorial. “We thought that was an appropriate response.”
The Worcester hospital has an agreement with TaraVista Behavioral Health Center in Devens to transfer psychiatric patients there when necessary, Muldoon said. And it is formalizing a similar arrangement with Harrington HealthCare System that would allow it to more easily transfer patients to Harrington’s Webster and Southbridge facilities.
UMass Memorial executives want to shrink their 27-bed psychiatric unit to meet growing demand from patients with complex medical and surgical needs.
But mental health advocates remain unhappy with the hospital’s plan. Karen Gromis, deputy director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said even with shuttle service, Worcester families will have a hard time visiting loved ones in hospitals that are many miles from the city.
“If the facility is in Worcester and [families] can take public transport . . . there’s flexibility there,” she said. “There isn’t any flexibility if you’re taking a shuttle.”
“I don’t think they fully appreciate how disruptive this is to both the patient and the family and friends,” she said.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association, which represents unionized nurses at UMass Memorial, also remained critical of the hospital’s plans Monday.
“These beds are needed for patients in that community, and expecting them to travel long distances is irresponsible and a callous decision,” said David Schildmeier, spokesman for the union. “We would argue they are shuttling patients to beds that aren’t available or are too far away in the first place. We don’t see any real advantages.”
The Department of Public Health said it is reviewing the hospital’s updated plans, “and will continue to monitor the implementation . . . to ensure the preservation of access and health status in the hospital’s service area.”
The department can raise concerns, but it cannot prevent UMass Memorial from closing the 13 psychiatric beds.
Hospital officials did not say exactly when they will begin closing the beds, although it could happen as soon as this summer.