BOSTON — Hundreds of psychiatric patients are being "boarded" in emergency rooms across the state as they await beds in mental health facilities, and lawmakers are pushing for more money to fix the problem.
On any given day, upwards of 500 patients in Massachusetts are waiting for a spot to open in a mental health treatment facility.
Delays existed before the pandemic, but they've gotten worse as hospitals diverted patients to make room for COVID-19 cases and staff shortages continue to prevent mental health facilities from adding more beds.
Meanwhile, an unprecedented rise in the number of people experiencing mental health issues during the pandemic has added to stress on the system.
"It's really a tough situation right now," said Dr. Danna Mauch, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.
Mauch said the state made progress in reducing the backlog of patients awaiting mental health treatment, only to see the pandemic set back some of that progress.
Leigh Simons Youmans, senior director of health care policy at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, said behavioral health is "the epidemic within the pandemic."
"The historic behavioral health boarding problem has been made even worse by the pandemic, as behavioral health diagnoses and acuity increases, in-person services have been more difficult to access, and pressures on emergency departments have risen," she said.
Lawmakers are pushing for more money in the proposed $47 billion state budget to reduce the backlog.
A bipartisan plan, filed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and Sens. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, and Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, calls for earmarking $5 million to create more beds in psychiatric facilities by providing grants to expand staffing levels and other initiatives.
A similar earmark was included in the current state budget and is expected to create another 250 new beds this year.
Lovely says she's heard from parents of teenagers who've been "boarded" for weeks awaiting a spot in a mental health facility.
"There's a huge need for more in-patient beds, especially for young people," she said. "We need to make a significant adjustment, especially in light of COVID-19."
Separately, Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, and other lawmakers have filed an amendment to increase funding for the state Department of Mental Health by nearly $12 million next fiscal year, including $6.6 million specifically for expanding the number of available beds.
Crighton's proposal would also require the state to explore treatment alternatives to placing patients in residential care.
The Senate on Tuesday began a debate that's expected to span the next few days and nights on the final spending package.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com