Bridgewater State Hospital in Hot Water Regarding Oversight

Advocates and families clash with pro-status quo government forces to transfer the hospital out of the hands of the Department of Corrections

by Summer Maxwell – Repost from Student Dispatch Boston – Stories Around Boston – Nov. 2, 2022

*Editor’s note: This piece was written prior to the Massachusetts Elections. FFIMI hopes for positive action with Governor-elect Maura Healey.

On a quiet Monday evening, parents and grandparents from across Massachusetts gather to share their stories. They all have one thing in common: they have a loved one currently being served at Bridgewater State Hospital (BSH), the state facility for those facing involuntary mental health treatment or awaiting a pretrial mental health evaluation. 

One by one the family members take turns expressing their grief with strained voices, wringing their hands. “It’s just been grueling,” says a couple whose grandson is currently at the hospital. “He’s been there eight plus years, and I’ve seen his health, physical health, deteriorate.” The couple—who asked to remain anonymous to protect their grandson— are not the only critics of Bridgewater State Hospital.

This past July, the Disability Law Center (DLC), the group appointed by the state to monitor reforms at the hospital, released its second report of the year condemning the physical conditions of Bridgwater, including the presence of mold and asbestos, and claims that involuntary physical restraint and injection of chemical restraints into patients are not being administered in compliance with state law. 

This wasn’t the first time the hospital ran into trouble. In 2014 the facility faced intense scrutiny following a lawsuit regarding the 2009 death of a patient named Joshua Messier. Messier’s death, caught on camera, raised serious questions about the use of force and presence of Department of Corrections (DOC) officers within the facility. 

After the lawsuit, Governor Charlie Baker enacted sweeping reforms, including reducing the role of the DOC to policy oversight and external security, and bringing in a new private contractor, Wellpath. The correctional health services contractor had a murky past, including over 1,000 lawsuits involving substandard care, and has been correlated with higher rates of inmate mortality than publicly managed health services.

Advocates argue that regardless of who is operating Bridgewater State, oversight lies at the root of the hospital’s chronic issues. That’s why many mental health advocates want management to be transferred from the DOC to the Department of Mental Health (DMH). 

A shift in oversight seems like a logical one for a state that devotes over $2 billion each year to behavioral healthcare. So why is the governor fighting tooth and nail against this change? 

Advocacy Groups Make Their Case for Change

On paper, the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Corrections share some objectives. Both of their missions include language around avoiding punitive measures, such as patient seclusion and restraint, and keeping their wards safe. The difference in emphasis, however, highlights cultural differences between the two departments. 

Mental health advocates agree that DMH’s policies align better with the needs of people with mental illness. DMH policy focuses on the establishment of a “therapeutic and healing environment” necessary to treat patients. According to the Disability Law Center’s report condemning Bridgewater earlier this year, the DMH also has superior regulations concerning staff training and a more developed de-escalation policy. “Bridgewater State Hospital should not be under the authority of a correctional agency,” says Tatum Pritchard, the interim commissioner for the Disability Law Center. Pritchard notes that moving oversight to the DMH would mean better behavioral health outcomes for patients because the department must comply with state law–especially regarding restraint and seclusion–that the report claims is currently being violated at Bridgewater. 

Other advocates agree with Pritchard’s assessment. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts (NAMI), a group that works to support individuals with mental illness across the state, pointed out that Massachusetts is one of just a few states that puts people facing involuntary mental health treatment or awaiting a pretrial mental health evaluation under the Department of Corrections rather than the Department of Mental Health. 

NAMI’s policy director Jaqueline Hubbard takes issue with the state’s categorization of Bridgewater, saying “DMH regulations and policies align more with how individuals with mental health conditions should be treated.” 

Defenders of the Status Quo

The Department of Corrections and Governor Baker have pushed back hard against a change in oversight, likely to avoid embarrassment and save jobs. 

In March of this year, DOC Commissioner Carol Mici released a statement defending the DOC’s oversight of Bridgewater. She stated that the Disability Law Center’s critiques stem from a “mischaracterization” of how the DOC uses restraint, and claimed that Bridgewater is operated to the same standards “applicable to a behavioral health facility.” Mici also provided data that since the Baker administration’s 2017 reforms, both the time spent in restraints and seclusion by prisoners plummeted. 

Gov. Baker has attempted to roadblock efforts for change by vetoing the funding for the DLC’s oversight of Bridgewater for the past three years in a row. Baker recently backed the DOC by attempting to gut a recent law that allows some inmates under DOC care to petition to be transferred to DMH. 

Baker has stood steadfastly by Bridgwater since he overhauled the system in 2017. He said in his 2022 State of the Commonwealth address that bringing in Wellpath “brought care and compassion to Bridgewater State Hospital.” Legitimizing the issues that persist at Bridgewater by supporting the transition might undermine Baker’s apparent success.

DOC unions also have fought against a change in oversight. Former state legislator Guy Glodis, who lobbied for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, successfully argued against passing a 2017 bill to transfer the hospital from the DOC by citing safety concerns, arguing the DOC plays a critical role in maintaining the security of the hospital. “People are going to come back and hold this legislature accountable for putting some of the most dangerous and heinous criminals in the hands of non-D.O.C. and not people that are trained for security measures,” Glodis warned at the time. Keeping the oversight under the DOC would also maintain the jobs of DOC staff at the hospital. 

Action at the Statehouse

The state legislature may end up deciding the fate of the hospital. Representative Ruth Balser, who sides with the patient advocates, introduced a bill in 2021 to officially transfer Bridgwater’s oversight to the Department of Mental Health. Balser agrees that the DOC isn’t qualified to care for patients at Bridgewater. “You want a cardiologist to take care of a heart patient,” she says. “You want psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers to take care of mentally ill people.”

As Governor Baker steps down, Balser is more optimistic about her proposed legislation. “We’re gonna have a new governor next year,” she said. “It’s not impossible the new administration will view these issues differently than this past administration has.” 

Attorney General Maura Healey, the favorite to fill Baker’s seat, has yet to take a firm stance on the issue. Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for the Healey campaign, only confirmed that as governor, “Maura will take the necessary steps to ensure that all patients of state-run facilities, including Bridgewater State Hospital, are cared for appropriately and treated with respect.”

If Healey maintains the status quo, she may face another crisis at Bridgewater State, which could be politically beneficial since research has shown voters reward disaster relief over prevention.

Families Can’t Wait for the Next Crisis

Back with the parents and grandparents with loved ones at Bridgewater State Hospital, state inaction is excruciating. 

Lubka Keltcheva, whose son is at the hospital, finds the Disability Law Center’s reports concerning because when determining the cause of her son’s mental health struggles, Keltcheva’s son’s tested positive for mold exposure. “Now he’s placed again in a moldy environment,” she said. “How do they expect somebody to get better in such an environment?”

Families of patients in Bridgewater State agree that the move to the Department of Mental Health can’t come soon enough. A couple whose grandson has been at Bridgewater for over eight years stated simply: “We need a different facility under the Department of Mental Health.” 

Another mother seconded their sentiment: “The DOC is in the business of running a jail. And Bridgewater State Hospital needs to be operated and run like a hospital.”

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