Friday August 17, 2012

BOSTON (AP) -- Massa chusetts officials on Thursday celebrated the opening of the first new psychiatric facility built in the state in over 60 years, which they say will better serve mentally ill patients and help integrate them back into their communities.

But as the $302 million, 320-bed facility is set to begin accepting patients from older state hospitals, some mental health professionals from southeastern Massachusetts have expressed concerns over its potential regional impacts.

Michael Page, of the southeastern Massachusetts nonprofit Child and Family Services organization, said while he believes the new Worcester facility will provide excellent treatment and surroundings for its patients; he wishes more money was invested into maintaining Taunton State Hospital.

Page, who serves as the director of an emergency services program for mentally ill individuals, said he is concerned over the "dramatic distance" patients and their families who are transferred to the Worcester hospital may have to travel. He said the distance could put a burden on families who cannot afford to drive an hour or more to visit patients.

"For these individuals the only non-psychiatric contacts they have are people who work in hospitals and their families," said Page. "Not that Taunton State (Hospital) is in everyone's backyard, but it's closer."

But Marcia Fowler, the state's Department of Mental Health commissioner, said the state currently places patients into facilities based on available beds, not necessarily distance.

"Our goal is to get people stabilized psychiatrically and discharge them back into communities," she said. "Not to keep them in a facility for a long period of time."

Fowler said patients typically stay an average of six months in facilities like Taunton and Worcester, with almost none staying for life. She also said the Department of Mental Health works with resource-strapped families to help them visit relatives in in-patient facilities throughout the state.

Since January, lawmakers from the southeastern part of the state have battled with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick over maintaining operations at Taunton State Hospital, which serves severely mentally ill patients. Patrick's administration announced plans to close the hospital, saying it was antiquated and not cost-effective. He suggested moving patients to the new facility in Worcester.

The Legislature overrode the governor's budget veto to a compromise provision that would maintain funding for 45 inpatient beds at the 169-bed hospital in Taunton.

The Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital is designed to allow patients to be active in programs and activities on its campus, and to resemble home environments and neighborhoods. Its programs will also emphasize physical well-being through exercise, movement, nutrition, fresh air and access to sunlight.

It's the largest non-transportation state construction project in Massachusetts history, according to the state Department of Mental Health.

Fowler said patients will begin moving into the new facility, which boasts beds for both adults and children, in late summer. Funding for over 120 beds will be transitioned from the Taunton to Worcester facility in the fall, she said.

According to the department, 21,000 people in Massachusetts are annually treated for mental health issues.