Protesters gather to oppose mental health unit closures

Dozens of people gathered at the site of the derelict Holyoke Geriatric Authority building where the proposed mental health facility is planned. (Photo by Peter Currier)

HOLYOKE- The Massachusetts Nurses Association conducted a protest Monday evening at the site of the facility in Holyoke that would effectively replace several mental health units in the Baystate Health system.

The “Keep Behavior Health Local” rally was attended by dozens of nurses, mental health professionals, patients, and families who believe that moving mental health facilities away from local units like the Fowler unit in Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield will be detrimental to patients. The mental health units in Baystate Franklin and Baystate Wing hospitals are expected to close down as well in favor of the Holyoke facility.

One of the chief complaints among the protestors was the partnership between Baystate Health and a company called US HealthVest, which is facilitating the opening of the new facility.

“Partnering with a national for-profit like US HealthVest could only lead to more problems. Our concerns were confirmed last month when we learned from a Seattle Times investigating that Us HealthVest had been putting financial decisions above patient safety,” said Patrick Boyd-Owens, a nurse at Franklin Medical Center speaking on behalf of Donna Stern, his fellow nurse. “The investigation documented patient neglect, documentation fraud, and even patient deaths at US HealthVest facilities across the US.”

From left: Donna Stern, Sandra Lortsher, Tammy Bringaze, state Rep. John C. Velis, and Westfield Mayor Brian P. Sullivan in a forum discussing the proposed closures in April. (Photo by Peter Currier)

On several occasions, speakers mentioned that Baystate is reviewing its partnership with the company, but each one said that the partnership should already have ended.

“As a result of recently released information, we are conducting a further review of US HealthVest. Our foremost priority is to assure that any partnership is consistent with both our mission and our core goals as an organization: quality care, increased access to critical health services, financial stability and investment in community health.” said Mark A. Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health in August. 

Ward 1 City Councilor Mary Ann Babinski attended the protest and said that she and the rest of the council support keeping the Fowler Unit open. The City Council recently passed a resolution unanimously with one abstention to show opposition to the facility closure and the move to Holyoke.

Many of the protestors carried signs stating what the average travel time would be from each of the three affected communities to the facility in Holyoke via public transit, which in some cases is more than two hours.

“There are enough barriers to mental health care,” said Suzanne Love, a nurse at Baystate Franklin and chair of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. “Let’s not add a physical barrier.”

The proposed facility on 45 Lower Westfield Rd, Holyoke would have 120 beds and come at a cost of $30 million. As of now, Baystate Health has 98 total beds for mental health patients in Baystate Noble, Baystate Franklin, Baystate Wing, and Baystate Medical Center. Should the Holyoke facility open, BMC’s beds would remain while the beds in the three local hospitals would be removed from mental health service.

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