Nurses protest losing inpatient psychiatric services at Holyoke hospital

  • Mary Salamon, a registered nurse in the recovery room at Mercy Medical Center makes her way down to join other nurses and supporters to protest the discontinuation of inpatient psychiatric services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. The protest took place in front of Mercy Medical Center in Springfield on Thursday.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alex Wright, the union nurse coordinator at Mercy Medical Center, with other nurses and supporters protesting the discontinuation of inpatient psychiatric services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. The protest took place in front of Mercy Medical Center in Springfield on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Alex Wright, the union nurse coordinator at Mercy Medical Center with other nurses and supporters protesting the discontinuation of inpatient psychiatric services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. The protest took place in front of Mercy Medical Center in Springfield on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robin Wright, a health worker at Mercy Medical Center with other nurses and supporters protesting the discontinuation of inpatient psychiatric services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. The protest took place in front of Mercy Medical Center in Springfield on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mary Salamon, a RN in the recovery room at Mercy hospital, with other nurses and supporters protesting the closing of mental health beds, and general lack of support for health care workers in front of Mercy Hospital in Springfield Thursday, May 7, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2020 4:32:30 PM
Modified: 5/8/2020 4:32:16 PM

HOLYOKE — The nurses stood six feet apart Thursday as they lined Carew Street outside Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, boxes drawn in chalk at their feet to help them with social distancing as they protested.

“Trinity has no Mercy,” read one sign, referring to the Michigan-based Catholic nonprofit Trinity Health, which operates Mercy Medical Center. “Support the front line not the bottom line,” read another.

The protest, organized by the Massachusetts Nurses Association, was in response to the plans that Trinity announced earlier this year to discontinue, by July 1, inpatient psychiatric services at its affiliate Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. That decision will result in the closure of 74 child and adult psychiatric beds and job losses for some 200 employees.

Mercy Medical Center officials have maintained that the closure is the result of a psychiatrist shortage in the region and across the country.

On April 30, the state Department of Public Health held a telephonic hearing on the closure, allowing the public to comment before the DPH decides whether the closure can go forward as proposed. To begin the hearing, Mercy President Deborah Bitsoli said the “persistent shortage of psychiatrists” has now reached “unprecedented, unsustainable and critically deficient levels.”

“Sadly, after exploring many options, we found that not only will we not be able to provide the level of safety and quality that is required, but also the level of care our community and our patients expect and deserve,” Bitsoli said.

Bitsoli also said that in addition to staffing issues, Mercy has safety and regulatory concerns, and that reimbursement levels do not adequately cover the cost of care at the facility.

Chief Medical Officer Robert Roose said that hospitals and other practices across the country are facing shortages of psychiatrists and that the hospital has been unable to solve those problems over the years. He said many psychiatrists are closer to retirement than other specialists, and that many others practice only in private outpatient settings. 

In order to maintain their commitment to behavioral health services, he said that Mercy is “streamlining processes” with other local hospitals to coordinate care for patients in crisis, and is working to secure contracts for in-patient care for patients at two other Trinity facilities in Connecticut: Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital in Hartford and Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs.

There were others who spoke out in opposition to the closures during the hearing.

State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said that DPH had not responded to a letter from him and other regional lawmakers. He said they were concerned that the public wouldn't be able to appropriately weigh in on the closure, given the fact that the coronavirus pandemic had prevented an in-person hearing.

“These are the only youth beds available in western Massachusetts and account for the majority of the beds of behavioral health admittance in all four counties of western Massachusetts,” Vega said. 

Vega said that in briefings with Mercy officials over the years, they had never raised the issue of a psychiatrist shortage. He added that sending patients to Hartford was a “slap in the face” to the many people who might not be able to do so due to lack of transportation.

One of those facing such transportation difficulties is Nicole Desnoyers of Springfield. She said she and her 9-year-old have waited for weeks in emergency departments before getting a placement in an in-patient facility. Traveling back and forth from a distant facility would be extremely overwhelming for parents already in a difficult situation, she said. 

“To send my child to another facility completely out of our region who has no idea about any follow-up care is just ridiculous,” she said.

Donna Stern, a psychiatric nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center and an active member of the state’s nurses union, said that there is already a lack of beds in the region. The Providence closure would leave no other option for families in western Massachusetts, she said.

“Frankly I’m appalled that right now there hasn’t been a moratorium on closures across the state,” she said. “We are in a pandemic, as we all know, and people are dying.”

Stern pointed out that Baystate Health recently proposed building a behavioral health hospital in Holyoke, as has Holyoke Medical Center. Those facts, she said, make it difficult to believe that there is an unsolvable shortage of providers.

“The bottom line is this is about money,” Stern said. “Everybody knows that the lowest reimbursement has to do with psychiatric patients. And unfortunately, in this model where everything is based on profit, this is what it comes down to. Because our patients don’t make money, we have to figure out a way to get rid of those services.”

DPH is now reviewing whether the services Providence provides are essential, with a determination due by mid-May. If the beds are deemed essential, Mercy will have the opportunity to address those concerns.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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