Carol Owen: Baystate’s plan for mental health facilities would harm patients

Published: 7/10/2019 10:00:13 PM

Baystate Health Systems has recently contracted with US HealthVest, a for-profit company with national operations, to plan for the construction of an inpatient mental health facility in Holyoke.

Baystate’s current plan is to phase out the three local mental health units at its community hospitals in Greenfield, Palmer and Westfield. If these closures happen, the new Holyoke hospital will be the only in-patient mental health facility in our Valley.

These closures would hit hardest on our local residents experiencing psychiatric crises. This is a time of increased local need for treatment and recovery supports due to the opioid epidemic and mental health issues that impact more and more people.

So many of our area families are all too familiar with these realities that call for both natural and professional supports close to home. People living with chronic mental illness are often stable for periods of time, and then experience flare ups of their symptoms that overwhelm their ability to cope. These same folks often struggle with substance addictions, substance dependency, and/or chronic physical illnesses. There is a good argument to be made that these complex and multi-layered needs are most sustainably addressed in community-based programs.

Mental health professionals have long been aware that locating medical and psychosocial resources in closer proximity to a struggling person’s daily environment contributes more adequately and holistically to further recovery following that person’s discharge from an acute treatment setting.

The business concerns of a for-profit company are often different than the concerns of a community. Without intending to do so upfront, a centralized, profit-driven facility often slides into prioritizing admissions of patients who have private insurance and access to transportation. The real reward for such facilities comes when patients or their families can pay for the treatment “out of pocket.”

Travel to Holyoke is a barrier for many vulnerable Connecticut River Valley residents in need of urgent psychiatric care. Police officers will undoubtedly have to serve as transporters to the new Holyoke hospital when necessary. Yet police officers are not typically trained to deal with the range of mental health crises that necessitate hospitalization. Transportation and other locational challenges will also impact discharge planning and aftercare.

For patients recovering from a psychiatric crisis, the first 72 hours after discharge are critical to ensuring patient survival. Lack of proximity to community-based aftercare will put people at risk if the local units are closed.

We do not need to close local units to have a new facility in Holyoke. There is enough need for both, although information about this issue has often been misleading. For example, Baystate argues that it is closing Greenfield’s East Spoke mental health unit because East Spoke’s 22 beds have gone “underfilled.” But the reality is that Baystate has often capped the number of beds that could be filled at 13. There appears to be more than enough local need to fill those local beds.

Further needs assessments that are community-driven could be helpful. People interested in bringing their concerns about Baystate’s plan to centralize psychiatric services in a for-profit regional hospital may wish to contact their elected official. Currently Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, have been involved in community dialogue on this issue.

Carol Owen is a licensed independent clinical social worker who for 20 years maintained a psychotherapy practice in Northampton and has worked as behavioral health director and clinician providing integrative health in the Hilltowns. She currently teaches at Westfield State University and is a faculty field advisor in the School for Social Work at Smith College.

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