Hundreds of people with the most desperate cases of alcohol and opioid addiction have been shut out of Connecticut’s state-run in-patient programs for nearly a month, according to union officials representing workers at the facilities.
On Dec. 28, the state’s Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services stopped admitting patients to the only two state-run medically-managed detox and intensive residential addiction care programs at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown and Blue Hills Hospital in Hartford, according to officials with the Service Employees International Union Local 1199.
According to Mary Kate Mason, spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, admissions to substance use treatment programs at the two facilities are not closed and the department is admitting patients to those programs.
But just 21 of 152 beds offered at those state-run programs were being used on Tuesday, according to a spreadsheet provided by SEIU District 1199 Vice President Rebecca Simonsen. Those numbers were collected by workers at the facilities, Simonsen said.
Mason said that the department has quarantined the addiction units and halted admissions when staff or patients test positive for COVID-19, but union officials and counselors at the programs describe a longer pattern of short-staffing that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and a significant rise in drug overdoses in Connecticut, especially from fentanyl.
The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services did not answer when asked directly on Tuesday and Wednesday whether any patients had been admitted to these programs since Dec. 28.
In 2015, 728 people died from drug overdose in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, 1,196 people died from an overdose – a 64 percent increase over four years. That number increased more gradually in 2021, when 1,359 people died from an overdose – including 1,066 people who died from an overdose of fentanyl.
Brian Williams, a counselor at Connecticut Valley Hospital, described those numbers as a sanitized way of looking at what is a toxic and deadly reality for many families across Connecticut. But the numbers, and cases like the death of a 13-year-old student in Hartford – “scream loudly that things are out of control,” according to Williams, who called out the state’s reduced capacity to care for Connecticut most in-need.
Unanswered calls, dire consequences
After the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services closed admissions on Dec. 28, the departmental voicemail box was filled to capacity within 10 days, with 206 messages from people seeking treatment whose calls went unanswered, according to union officials.
In those same 10 days, the union reported that the department had canceled 22 scheduled appointments for admissions screening, three scheduled admissions and “countless” patient referrals from Connecticut hospitals. Union officials said that one patient who showed up to his scheduled admission was turned away at the door.
Those unanswered calls have potentially dire consequences, according to Victor Rodriguez, a counselor and former patient at Blue Hills.
Rodriguez said that if the facility hadn’t opened its doors to him in 1984 when he came for help for his addiction, he would probably be dead from an overdose – especially considering how widespread fentanyl has become.
“There was a time that I needed it so bad, I called Blue Hills Hospital, and they opened the door for me immediately,” Rodriguez said. “There was no waiting, there was no ‘call back,’ because there’s no such thing with addicts. If you know addicts, waiting is the last thing on their list – they’ll go find another bag of dope before they call again or end up in a treatment center.”
Rodriguez said going to Blue Hills allowed him to get clean. Five years after he called for help, he was a certified addictions counselor working at Dutcher Hall at Connecticut Valley Hospital. It broke the cycle of addiction, allowing his children to see him helping people instead of getting high, he said.
Now, Rodriguez said he finds himself in the position of turning people away from the hospital that saved his life, because the beds aren’t available. Rodriguez said that he tries to make referrals when he can, but that other programs come with other issues – like insurance coverage, which the state-run programs don’t require for treatment.
“Folks say to me that it’s easier to commit a crime and do some time in prison than to wait on a bed,” Rodriguez said. “Now they’ve got a rap in their sheets and all kinds of stuff. We work with probation officers, judges and people who look to us to educate them, to provide them with what they need to send them back and connect them to their community. We need to provide the services, and we need to provide them now.”
No staff, no beds
On Tuesday, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services website reported there were no beds available across its withdrawal management and intensive residential treatment programs in Hartford and Middletown.
The intensive residential treatment program at Blue Hills is currently using 13 of its 21 beds, the union reported – but that is an outlier among mostly empty programs. The detox program at Blue Hills has only two patients out of 21 available beds, and in Middletown, zero of the 20 beds are filled, according to figures provided by the union.
Out of 30 beds available for women at the Middletown intensive residential treatment program, one was filled, according to figures provided by the union, and out of the 50 beds available for men in that program, just five were filled.
Union officials point to the department’s failure to fill hundreds of vacancies in 2020 and 2021, even as hundreds more employees retired, leaving the programs in Middletown and Hartford too short-staffed to operate.
Williams, who treats people with severe addictions at the Middletown facility, said that the short-staffing pre-dates the pandemic, and shows a lack of commitment from the department and Gov. Ned Lamont to serve the most vulnerable.
According to Williams, the issue isn’t just hiring staff, but retaining them – a significant challenge when a heavily short-staffed unit is overworked and overwhelmed.
“If you have somebody who is a young nurse, coming out of school with a sense that they want to have a career, but still have a life – and then they come to work, and right out of orientation, they are being mandated overtime three, four times a week,” Williams said.
According to figures provided by union officials, there are 800 vacant positions across the department, including 350 at Connecticut Valley Hospital, and 62 in the Addiction Services Division.
Since January 2020, 451 people have retired from the department, a number only partially offset by 178 hires. Another 493 employees are eligible to retire this year.
That pattern of understaffing dates back at least a decade. Between July 2011 and November 2021, the department reported 1,603 retirements, the third highest of all executive branch state agencies during that period. 690 of those positions have been filled and another 790, approved by the state budget office, remain vacant.
Calls for additional funding
Kim Piper, lead organizer for SEIU Local 1199 New England, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday that the union was calling on the department to fully restore services by the end of April by hiring 330 staff at Connecticut Valley Hospital, including 62 in addiction services.
The union is also calling for the department to double the number of patients addiction services can treat by creating 110 new staff positions – which the union said would cost the state about $6.6 million.
State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, said that addictions services have suffered repeated rounds of budget cuts as the state has coped with budget challenges over the last decade
Lesser said that if lawmakers are serious about prioritizing mental health and addiction, they need to make sure they are providing the resources to get adequate staffing for the safety net programs.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, who is a critical care doctor, said that the state now has its highest-ever rainy day fund as well as federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act that put the state in a financial position to make addiction services a priority. Properly funding those services, Anwar said, is a matter of life and death.
“It is heartbreaking that we as community members, legislators, and people who are in the field, are asking, begging, the government to do the right thing to keep these places open,” Anwar said. “To put the resources and invest in hiring the people to continue what is one of the most basic things we need to take care of the epidemic that we have been dealing with in our state.”
The Office of the Governor did not respond to requests from CT Examiner for comment or information on Tuesday.
After CT Examiner published this report, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services spokesman Art Mongillo said in an email that patients have been admitted to these programs and continue to be admitted. “I am confirming that patients have been admitted, and continue to be admitted.”