State hospital staff, families seek answers

By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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Two weeks after the state Department of Mental Health announced that Westborough State Hospital will close next summer, workers and the relatives of patients at the department’s largest psychiatric facility have questions and concerns.

The patients’ relatives have not been told whether their family members will be discharged to community settings or moved to another facility.

“Nobody knows where they’re sending them, certainly no one told us,’’ said Framingham resident Thelma Berman, 76, who has a son at the Westborough facility.

Questions also remain about what will happen to the hospital’s unit for hearing-impaired patients, the only such facility in New England.

And Westborough State Hospital’s 450 employees don’t know how many of them will lose their jobs.

A department spokesman said the patients will be evaluated on an individual basis and sent to a program that will best serve their needs.

“Any patient, regardless of their medical history, gets an assessment whether they’re clinically ready to be discharged,’’ said Juan Martinez.

And department spokeswoman Kristina Barry said plans are being worked out for the hearing-impaired unit, and for “what’s going to happen to the staff.’’

The state hospital, a 161-year-old institution that has about 190 patients, is scheduled to discharge or transfer its last patient by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The plan is to release 70 people into community settings and to move the remainder to other hospitals, according to Barry.

Barry did not specify to which hospitals Westborough patients will be moved. In a timeline outlined by the department, Westborough will stop accepting new patients by the end of this month and convert the first in-patient unit to community placements by the middle of December.

But this plan has many of the patients’ family members uneasy.

Elderly parents like Berman are worried that it will be increasingly difficult for them to visit their children if they are transferred to a distant hospital. Some parents are already driving farther, after their children were moved to Westborough from Medfield State Hospital when that facility closed.

“Many of these patients are older and their parents are older,’’ said Norwell resident Domenic Zambuto, 77, whose 52-year-old daughter has been hospitalized for more than 30 years. She was moved to Westborough from Medfield State. The Zambutos say their daughter could not live in a group home.

Quincy resident Barbara Riggs, a patient’s sister, is also skeptical about the hospital closing. She said the last time her sister was moved from one state hospital to another, the staff managed to lose all of her documents, including her birth certificate, Social Security card, and identification card.

The state originally planned to close the Westborough State Hospital in 2012, after a new psychiatric hospital is built in Worcester. But a department commission recommended the earlier closing as a way to gain money to pay for community placements for 200 psychiatric patients now in state hospitals, including the 70 that will be discharged from Westborough.

The closing comes at a time when the department is facing a $13 million budget shortfall this year, and when mental health professionals and advocates see group homes or other community settings as a better venue for some patients.

“The truth is you recover better in almost any setting than a state hospital,’’ said Cathy A. Levin, a former patient who is now an advocate for the mentally ill. Levin was on the state commission that recommended closing Westborough.

She said she spent a year and a half at Worcester State Hospital before being discharged to a subsidized apartment. With outpatient help she put her life back together and completed her bachelor’s degree.

Some wonder what will happen with the hospital’s unit for deaf patients.

Ten people with hearing impairments as well as mental illnesses live at Westborough, where accommodations include 24-hour staff who know sign language and fire alarms that employ light alerts rather than sound. Hospital employees said they are worried about discharging the patients because many of them are illiterate.

Barry said the department is scheduled to identify the options for the unit by the middle of next month.

Westborough’s employees organized their second lunch-hour protest on Wednesday, holding handwritten posters with messages such as “We want to treat, not kick to the street,’’ and “Don’t balance the DMH budget on the backs of our clients.’’ They plan to hold weekly protests for the rest of this month in hopes of reversing the state’s decision to close the hospital, said Chrystene Zarazinski, president of the hospital’s largest union, the American Federation of State, Municipal and County Employees.

“It’s very stressful right now for people because there aren’t any answers,’’ she said.

The patients are also wondering where they will go.

Albert N. Powers, a rehabilitation counselor, said about 10 patients have asked him the question, and he didn’t have anything to tell them.

“They still haven’t been told what’s going to happen to them,’’ he said.