ATTLEBORO — The state’s mental health system is in crisis and the impact is being felt in the Attleboro area with patients having a lack of access to treatment, providers told U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III Monday.
Kennedy held a discussion of the issues at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, where he was told about a shortage of psychiatrists and therapists, a lack of psychiatric hospital beds, and not enough treatment to prevent problems from becoming emergencies.
Dr. Brian Patel told Kennedy that at any given time, up to half of the emergency room beds at Sturdy are taken up by people with mental health problems when they should be receiving psychiatric care.
The psychiatric patients should not be at Sturdy, he said, but “people don’t know what to do with them.”
He said the hospital at times has to declare an emergency and keep nurses on beyond their shift and call in more help because of the overload.
The patients often have to stay days in the expensive emergency room because there are no rooms at regional psychiatric hospitals to transfer them to, he said.
They also get discharged with a couple weeks prescription for medication, but then they have no access to medical help, he said.
The participants in the meeting said it can take weeks to get an appointment with a psychiatrist.
June Fleischmann, an outreach worker for the City of Attleboro, said access to all types of health care has been made more difficult in Attleboro by the number of doctors who have moved their offices out of the downtown area.
People who cannot drive or don’t own a car cannot get to a doctor in Wrentham or Norfolk because there is no public transportation, she said.
“Doctors used to be four or five blocks away. Now they are four or five miles,” she said.
She said she knows of people from Attleboro who need services in Brockton and must take a train to Boston and another back out to Brockton because there is no direct transportation between Attleboro and Brockton.
Mike Pelleteir of Southbay Mental Health and Philip Shea of Community Counseling of Bristol County said there is a shortage of mental health professionals including therapists and psychiatrists, partly because of low pay.
“The community system is in crisis right now,” Shea said.
Therapists can make as little as $35,000 a year. Kennedy said he knows of a psychiatrist who said after paying expenses, she makes as little as $8 per session. She told him she would be better off working for free because then she wouldn’t have to do so much paperwork.
Kennedy said a study has found that 55 percent of the counties in the United States have no psychiatrists, adding Massachusetts is in better condition than many states.
Shea said the majority of psychiatrists are approaching retirement age, so the shortage is going to get worse.
Kennedy said as a former prosecutor, he knows that people who are not treated for problems end up in emergency rooms or in jail. Cook County House of Corrections in Chicago, for instance, has become the largest mental health provider in the United States, he said.
Jamie Gaynes of Health Care for All said many private health insurance policies do not provide for substantial mental health treatment.
The group told Kennedy there are a number of steps to be taken to address the situation.
They include creating urgent care centers for mental health so patients can stay out of more costly hospital emergency rooms and finding financial incentive to encourage more people to become therapists and psychiatrists.
Kennedy said there are reform bills pending in Congress, but there is disagreement over which measure best addresses the problems.
He also said he and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., support bills that would require insurance companies to disclose why they denied coverage for mental health treatment.
Private insurers deny coverage at twice the rate of government-provided insurance, he said.
JIM HAND covers politics for The Sun Chronicle. He can be reached at 508-236-0399, at email@example.com and on Twitter @TSCPolitics.