Business & Tech

State approves plan for UMass Medical to reduce psychiatric beds

State public health officials on Wednesday approved a $30 million renovation project at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester that includes a controversial plan by the hospital to cut about half of its psychiatric beds.

Hospital officials want to convert 13 psychiatric beds into space for medical and surgical patients, arguing that they are facing greater demand from those patients than from people with severe mental illness.

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The plan has drawn criticism from mental health advocates, elected officials, and the state’s largest nurses union, who worry that psychiatric patients will lose access to care. State health officials also had raised strong concerns.

In response, UMass Memorial said it would work closely with other psychiatric facilities in Central Massachusetts, transferring patients to those sites — ranging from about 10 to 30 miles from Worcester — when necessary. It also offered to run a daily shuttle to several other facilities so friends and family from Worcester can visit patients who are transferred.

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The state’s Public Health Council approved the hospital’s plans, but with conditions. It required UMass Memorial to prioritize admission for psychiatric patients whose insurance plans may not cover stays at other facilities in the region.

The council said UMass Memorial also must submit quarterly reports about the numbers and types of patients it transfers to other psychiatric facilities, and it must operate the daily shuttle — for free — for six months.

“There are some negative aspects to this, but on the balance ... we believe that it’s the best thing for the patients in the region,” said Dr. Eric W. Dickson, chief executive of the hospital’s parent company, UMass Memorial Health Care.

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The 13 psychiatric beds may close as soon as the end of this summer, Dickson said. UMass Memorial is planning to work with a private company to open a new psychiatric facility in Worcester, but that site isn’t expected to open until 2019.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.
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