Jan 24, 2023 - News

Wait times for long-term psychiatric care span months for some patients

Illustration of a wait in line ticket dispenser with a velvet rope in front of it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Some patients seeking long-term, intensive behavioral health treatment are spending months waiting to get placed into programs in Massachusetts, according to a new report.

Driving the news: Out of 110 patients seeking long-term psychiatric care, more than one-third waited six months or longer for a bed, according to a survey of psychiatric units and facilities conducted in November. The survey, released last week, was conducted by hospital and behavioral health leaders.

  • Nearly one-fourth waited for more than a year, up from nearly 8% in December 2021.

Why it matters: Some of the most vulnerable behavioral health patients are missing out on long-term, specialized care, job training and other resources as they wait in hospital psychiatric units or short-term treatment centers for placement.

  • Those delays have a ripple effect across the state's entire health care system, where hundreds of people each week end up waiting for behavioral health beds to open up, says Leigh Simons Youmans, senior director of health care policy at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA).

MHA conducted the survey, its second focusing on these services, with the Massachusetts Association of Behavioral Health Systems (MABHS) to offer a snapshot of the massive waits for patients with chronic, severe mental illness.

What they're saying: "Since COVID, it's been like the perfect storm in the mental health system. While need has really increased for people needing mental health services, psychiatric services … we haven't been able to meet the need," David Matteodo, executive director of MABHS, tells Axios.

By the numbers: Doctors in Massachusetts saw an estimated 1,042 long-term behavioral health patients between December 2021 and November 2022, per the survey.

  • The number of beds has shrunk from 829 in 2007 to roughly 663 in 2022, the report says.

State of play: The Department of Mental Health is seeking bidders to open 65 new beds in Worcester or eastern Massachusetts for long-term, psychiatric care, known as continuing care services.

  • Yes, but: Matteodo says DMH should expand the scope to include beds in Western and Central Massachusetts to ensure there's a large enough applicant pool.

The new behavioral health law former Gov. Charlie Baker signed last year required DMH to release a plan detailing how it will address the issues affecting continuing care services by early January.

  • A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which oversees DMH, told Axios the plan is being finalized and will be sent to lawmakers in the next few weeks.

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