DPH Holds Public Hearing on Proposed Closure of Child Behavioral Health Unit at Cambridge Hospital

Opponents testify that young children in crisis will suffer immeasurably by the elimination of such services

May 08, 2013, 14:30 ET from Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 8, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The following is being released by Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United:

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Family members, nurses, care providers, legislators and mental health advocates from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill packed the Macht Auditorium at Cambridge Hospital this afternoon to speak against the hospital's plan to close its highly utilized and nationally acclaimed Child Assessment Unit (CAU). The award-winning unit, which has been targeted for closure since early April, currently offers specialized care to children who are in acute emotional or behavioral distress and who are aged three to 12.

The Department of Public Health held the legally-required public hearing in response to Cambridge Health Alliance's plans to eliminate 40 percent of the beds in the unit and to stop providing inpatient psychiatric care for children between the ages of three and eight. The proposed closure comes at a time when there is a statewide shortage of beds for young children suffering from serious mental health conditions. The hearing is designed to determine if the services offered by the unit are essential to patients in the community.

"The children in the CAU come to us with some of the most challenging and difficult diagnoses that a child could ever face," testified Gina Galarza, an RN who has worked on the unit for 13 years. "These little ones – children as young as three years old – suffer from severe mental illnesses; autistic spectrum disorders; mood disorders; anxiety disorders; and bipolar disorder. And many of them are dealing with homicidal/suicidal thoughts, trauma, and abuse. The CAU is one of the only facilities in the state that can help them by providing age appropriate services in an age-specific environment. Where will they go if this unit is closed?"

Currently, Cambridge Health Alliance operates two separate units for the care of children and adolescents with acute mental illness:  a 13-bed Child Assessment Unit (CAU) for children ages 3 to 12; and a separate 14-bed Adolescent Assessment Unit for children 12 to 19. The CHA plan is to consolidate these units, reducing the 27 beds currently available to children to just 16 beds 3/4 a 40 percent cut to their bed capacity for children with mental illness.  The new combined unit will serve children from 9 to 18, which will mean younger children aged 3 to 8 will no longer have access to care at the facility and that children as young as 9 will be receiving their care on a floor with adolescents who are in crisis and who are as old as 18, a pairing that opponents argue is both dangerous and unfair for children, their parents, and their family members.

"These are the sickest children in the state," said Kerry McAllister, an RN who has worked on the CAU 19 years. "From an advocacy point of view, it's very concerning because this is a time when children and families need more of these services, not less. We can't afford to cut essential services for this very vulnerable population."

The proposed plan comes at a time when there is a critical shortage of all types of mental health services and beds in the commonwealth, particularly beds for children and adolescents.  As a result of this crisis, hundreds of patients with mental illness, many of them children and adolescents, are being boarded in the emergency departments waiting from several hours to several days for treatment beds, and the waits for children and adolescents are even longer.

"There is no clinical justification for this closing," testified Donna Kelly-Williams, a pediatric nurse at Cambridge Hospital and president of the MNA. "If it happens, children in this and surrounding communities who are suffering from serious mental health conditions will wait longer for care, they will travel long distances for care, or they will go without care altogether. Those of us who have spent years caring for the patients throughout the state of Massachusetts are appalled that these children and families are being abandoned. We are here today to urge the Department of Public Health, which has the ability to protect these patients, to prevent this closure from happening."

Founded in 1903, the Massachusetts Nurses Association is the largest professional health care organization and the largest union of registered nurses in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Its 23,000 members advance the nursing profession by fostering high standards of nursing practice, promoting the economic and general welfare of nurses in the workplace, projecting a positive and realistic view of nursing, and by lobbying the Legislature and regulatory agencies on health care issues affecting nurses and the public.  The MNA is also a founding member of National Nurses United, the largest national nurses union in the United States with more than 170,000 members from coast to coast.

SOURCE Massachusetts Nurses Association/National Nurses United