EASTON — Behavioral health professionals have voiced their disagreement over University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s proposed move of the 12-bed inpatient psychiatric health unit from Cambridge to Chestertown instead of Easton.

The beds are being moved with Shore Health transitioning UM Shore Medical Center at Dorchester to a freestanding medical facility at Cambridge Market Place. Shore Health originally requested to move the behavioral health beds to Easton, but decided to modify its Certificate of Need exemption (CON) application and move the beds to UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown.

Members of the Shore Health behavioral health staff and the community have said they do not want the beds to move to Chestertown because they believe sending patients to the northern end of the Mid-Shore in Chestertown could harm patients with the extended travel.

In May during a Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, UM Shore Regional Health President and CEO Ken Kozel said moving the inpatient behavioral health beds to Chestertown would help “sustain the viability of that hospital.”

According to a news release from the Save Easton Psychiatry Unit group, from July 2018 until April 2019 the emergency behavioral health response team saw 1,981 patients in all UM SRH facilities combined. Sixty-three percent of these patients were from Talbot and Dorchester counties with only 16% from Queen Anne’s and Kent counties.

“If the only options for hospitalization and treatment are Chestertown, Annapolis, Salisbury or Baltimore — all an hour or more away from family and friends — some of them will choose to just go home,” Adult, Child and Adolescent Board Certified Psychiatrist and Vice Chairperson of Psychiatry at Shore Health Justin Wade said. “Some of them will choose to go home simply because of how long they will have to wait for transportation. They will have decreased family support, lack of access to their ministers and spiritual guidance.”

Justin Wade said the coordination of care will worsen because nearly all transitional support services are located in or around Easton. It will also affect the behavioral health workers in the emergency rooms during follow-ups.

“Behavioral health workers in the ER will do their best to provide follow-up for those patients who decline hospitalization,” Justin Wade said. “But it will not be as effective as the immediate provision of medication, therapy, substance abuse treatment by the inpatient unit. The result will be patients walking out of ERs with continued depression and suicidal thoughts, untreated psychosis and substance abuse.”

In a recent query of the UMSMC at Dorchester nursing staff; more than 75% responded they “live in areas where such a movement to Chestertown would add a minimum of two hours to their commute” and 75% expressed an “unwillingness to travel to Chestertown to perform services,” the news release stated.

With these concerns in place, Leah Francis Wade, Save Easton Psychiatry Unit media liaison, created a petition on change.org titled, “Keep 2021 Shore Health inpatient Psychiatry Unit in Easton. Keep critical services local.”

There have been 1,750 out of 2,500 signatures opposing the requested Certificate of Need exemption to switch inpatient psychiatric care locations from Easton to Chestertown in 2021.

According to the petition, patients, who are admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit from the Easton ER and Dorchester’s future ER, will have to travel 45 minutes or 1.5 hours by ambulance for admission in the Chestertown psychiatric care beds.

“The petition was a way to bring the concerns of all of those people together in one place,” Leah Francis Wade said. “It provided a platform to rally around, and a way to share some education about the important roll inpatient psychiatric care plays in our community. We couldn’t be happier that people all over the Shore are getting educated about the scarcity of mental health resources and the threat they are under by the requested exemption to the CON.”

Carole Spurrier, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland’s representative on the Lower Shore, has been a volunteer for 15 years. She said families are very important for patients who experience mental health conditions; and that this move will put a strain on resources for families.

“Moving the beds from Easton to Chestertown, moves them from the population center/density of the Mid-Shore,” Spurrier said. “Many families do not have the resources to travel to Chestertown, or to stay in Chestertown while their loved ones are hospitalized for a psychiatric crisis. Supportive family members also want to work with the treatment team to best care for their loved one when he/she is released from the hospital.”

If the Shore Health COE application is approved, the move would occur when a new Cambridge freestanding medical facility opens in summer 2021.

“We are grateful for the physicians, advanced practice providers and team members at Shore Behavioral Health who provide such compassionate, quality care for our patients,” Kozel said in July. “Their dedication and healing work benefits patients under the most challenging circumstances.”

Shore Health Senior Vice President For Strategy and Communications Patti Willis said the Maryland Health Care Commission will make its decision about the application when it has gathered all of the information it needs in the next several months.

“UM SRH anticipates that once the behavioral health inpatient unit is relocated, patients will continue to arrive in the same manner to its facilities; transportation will be provided to Chestertown for those patients in need of inpatient care, just as it is provided to Cambridge today,” Willis said. “Through the most recent application to MHCC, the 12 bed inpatient unit is proposed to be located in Chestertown, at the northern end of our five county region, rather than the formerly approved location in Easton, which is 38 miles from Chestertown.”

Along with the possible relocation of the inpatient behavioral health unit, Willis said UM SRH intends to expand access to outpatient behavioral health services at Easton and Chestertown. This will maintain the outpatient services currently provided in Cambridge (the Intensive Outpatient Program and Bridge Clinic).

The current inpatient unit in Cambridge serves patients from across the five-county region, and has an average of 473 discharges from its behavioral health inpatient unit (not unique individual patients) per year, Willis said.

“We anticipate that we will continue to serve the entire Mid-Shore region, and will have approximately the same number of discharges, although our patients’ counties of residence may change slightly,” Willis said.

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