State questions timing of hospital’s closure of psychiatric services 

  • Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke. SCREENSHOT/GOOGLE MAPS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2020 11:18:26 AM

HOLYOKE — When the health care giant Trinity Health announced on Feb. 28 that it would close 74 inpatient psychiatric beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, it said it intended to discontinue those services by June 30.

However, the state Department of Public Health, or DPH, is alleging that Trinity already ended its child and adolescent psychiatric services on May 20, with no warning to the department. That closure came despite the fact that Trinity was in the middle of a state-mandated “essential service closure process.”

“The Department is concerned that the Hospital would discontinue such a unit nine days before submitting a plan which states the patients cared for in this unit would continue to receive care at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital until June 30, 2020,” a June 5 letter from the DPH reads.

The letter goes on to say that the early closure compromised the hospital’s ability to comply with its own plan, submitted May 29, in which it outlined its steps to ensure access to services that the DPH has declared as “necessary for preserving access and health.”

Despite the apparent closure, the state’s nurses union, the Massachusetts Nursing Association, is still fighting to keep the beds in Holyoke. In a statement Thursday, the union announced a protest outside the State House in Boston on June 29 at 11 a.m. to call on Gov. Charlie Baker to use his authority under the state of emergency enacted in response to the pandemic to halt the closure.

Currently, the DPH doesn’t have the power to do that. Though the department has officially voiced its concerns with Mercy Medical Center — the Trinity-owned hospital in Springfield that runs Providence — its process does not give it authority to stop a hospital from closing services, a DPH spokesperson said.

“For Mercy/Providence, the closure of services may proceed,” the spokesperson wrote in a June 22 email to the Gazette. When asked whether Trinity had responded to the DPH’s questions about the apparent early closure, the spokesperson said Thursday that the department expects to receive a response from the hospital “in the next few days.”

Mercy spokesperson Mary Orr said that Providence “remains open and inpatient psychiatric services will be available through June 30.”

“We evaluate all admissions based on our ability to safely care for each patient, which includes daily staffing levels,” Orr said. “We also continue to work with our partners and other facilities to ensure that patients receive timely and appropriate care.”

However, Cindy Chaplin, a nurse at Providence for 42 years, said that closure of the Providence beds began in the children’s unit in mid-May, when hospital leadership decided to stop taking admissions.

“They were working on discharging the remaining patients,” Chaplin said. “Once they discharged the last patient, they decided not to accept any more patients.”

The closure of the beds at Providence leaves western Massachusetts without any youth psychiatric beds, and it shutters the majority of behavioral health beds in all four counties of western Massachusetts, advocates have said.

“If a child is in distress out here, they have to go to Vermont, Hartford or Boston,” Chaplin said. She added that family therapy and teaching families about caring for their child during a behavioral health crisis is essential, but that it is made very difficult when a child has to travel far away for care.

“Their parents can’t get there, they may be impoverished, not have cars,” she said.

Chaplin said that she also is concerned that MassHealth, the state’s combined Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, doesn’t cross state lines.

That is a concern raised by the DPH in its June 5 letter to Mercy Medical Center, which has said it would secure 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. The DPH asked that Trinity Health update its plan to reflect that those facilities are included in its Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership network.

Chaplin, who is co-chair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association bargaining unit at Providence, said that U.S. Sen. Ed Markey had been an ally of those fighting the closure. She said Markey already asked Baker to use his authority to say that no hospitals can close units during the pandemic. Baker, a former health insurance executive, has not taken that step.

“Putting profit over people is really something that is very sad, and I think that’s what Trinity is doing,” Chaplin said. “Even though they’re nonprofit, they’re all about money.”

It does seem that there are more adult and geriatric behavioral health beds coming to western Massachusetts, though they are likely years away.

On Monday, Holyoke Medical Center announced that it is seeking state approval for a new, approximately 100-bed behavioral health facility. In a press release, the medical center said it has partnered with Signet Health Corporation to assist in delivering behavioral health services, and that it has signed a letter of intent with the health care real estate company Leo Brown Group to design and build the facility.

However, the new “Holyoke Medical Center Behavioral Health Pavilion” will take an estimated 18 months to complete following state approval. It is unclear whether pediatric beds will be part of those plans. Holyoke Medical Center has not responded for comment from the Gazette in recent weeks, about both its behavioral health beds, and whether its plans are related to Trinity’s closure of inpatient psychiatric services at Providence – or its plans to close its Birthing Center.

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


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