More than 500 behavioral health patients, including 74 children, were “boarded” in Massachusetts hospital emergency rooms at the beginning of last week.
Behavioral health boarding occurs when a patient remains in an emergency department (ED) or medical/surgical unit because an inpatient psychiatric bed is unavailable.
Last Tuesday, MHA’s Senior Director of Healthcare Policy Leigh Simons Youmans discussed the 500-plus boarders in her testimony on MHA’s priority behavioral health legislation, H.1061, before the Joint Committee on Financial Services. That bill, An Act to Strengthen and Expand Access to Behavioral Healthcare, was filed by Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) and would, among other provisions help address the pressing workforce shortages that prevent facilities from staffing available psychiatric beds.
“MHA has recently begun to collect weekly psychiatric boarding data from health systems across the commonwealth,” Youmans told the committee. “Over the past two weeks that data has shown more than 500 patients waiting in EDs or on medical surgical units for an inpatient psychiatric placement. I would note that in the last two months, hospitals have seen a marked reduction in pediatric boarding, consistent with the longstanding trend of decreased pediatric boarding during the summer when kids are away from the stressors of school. As a result, we may well see the 500-boarder number increase as the summer ends and as children go back to school in the fall.”
The administration and legislature to date have been very responsive to the boarding crisis, which Youmans called “the epidemic within the pandemic.” Funding in the FY21 budget and additional investment from MassHealth will bring 300 beds online this calendar year, and MassHealth has made supplemental payments to support psychiatric units. In July, the administration announced funds dedicated toward immediate workforce needs to attract and retain staff at inpatient psychiatric units and facilities.
“These incredible financial commitments by the state will help to address the current acute crisis,” Youmans said. “Addressing the longstanding systemic challenges of the behavioral health system will take additional steps.” She said H. 1061’s Behavioral Health Investment Trust Fund would support behavioral health pipeline initiatives to expand the behavioral health workforce in the long-term, and in a culturally competent way. The bill would also create, among other initiatives, a Behavioral Health Rate Task Force and require coverage for all medically necessary mental health services across MassHealth, the Group Insurance Commission, and commercial insurers.