HOLYOKE – It isn’t meant to look like a hospital. Think neutral tans and grays, with red brick and large windows admitting plenty of sunlight.
Don’t think about what a mental health facility could have looked like 20 years ago.
Don’t think stigma. Don’t think hidden.
“It is actually looking like a hotel,” said Roy Sasenaraine, CEO Baystate Health’s Valley Springs Behavioral Health Hospital, nearing completion in Holyoke. “We are on target and on track at this point. ”It really is meant to create a warm, welcoming supportive environment for our patients.”
Baystate and its partner, for-profit Lifepoint Health, started construction in the winter of 2021-2022 on the $72 million, 150-bed behavioral health hospital at the former site of the demolished Holyoke Geriatric Authority, at 45 Lower Westfield Road.
The first patients are scheduled to move in Aug. 15, Sasenaraine said this week. Those first arrivals are long-term patients now living at a soon-to-close Vibra HealthCare unit in the former Springfield Municipal Hospital, Sasenariaine said.
“It’s a great state to be in at this point,” Sasenaraine said. “We are building all the departments from the ground up.”
The new hospital will employ about 200 people, according to Baystate.
After that, the shorter-term beds in the “main tower” will open, probably starting with 24 beds set aside for children and youth. That’s twice the number of beds for young people now available, he said.
Rooms for adults will open later in phases, he said.
Baystate Health, the region’s largest healthcare provider, has 98 inpatient psychiatric beds in Western Massachusetts: 28 at Baystate Wing Hospital in Palmer, 28 at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, 22 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield and 20 at Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield.
As it opens the Holyoke facility, Baystate will phase out behavioral health beds in Greenfield, Palmer and Westfield in part to avoid competing with itself and also to retire outmoded facilities and concentrate care in a more modern and accessible facility.
With 120 beds, plus the 30 long-term beds used to fulfill the state contract, Baystate is increasing its inpatient capacity by 50%, Sasenaraine said.
“The need is so great. I think access is the greatest thing,” he said.
Statewide, half the patients admitted to emergency rooms for mental health conditions remained in those emergency rooms for longer than 12 hours as of June 2022, according to a study published this year by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission. The new facility hopes to address those delays.
But closing those beds in the regional hospitals was controversial when announced, especially in Greenfield. The Massachusetts Nurses Association union is still advocating to preserve the regional units, especially in Greenfield and Westfield, where they are staffed by unionized nurses.
“Keeping mental health care local remains a critical priority for MNA nurses and our coalition members in Western Mass.,” said Massachusetts Nurses Association members Suzanne Love and Donna Stern, in a written reply to questions from The Republican.
“We continue to advocate for the preservation of Baystate Health’s mental health beds in Greenfield and Westfield,” they said.
Those local beds allow patients to receive support from loved ones and other providers, the two said.
“We also believe that mental health care should be provided to patients regardless of their insurance status, ability to find transportation, or medical needs,” they said. “Mental health patients requiring medical care benefit from being at an acute care hospital that includes access to in-house mental health care experts.”
Sasenaraine said nothing will change with regard to affordability. The new hospital will accept the same insurance Baystate accepts now, including MasssHealth.
What will change, he said, is a streamlined admissions process from the emergency room or from a primary care physician.
“They can walk weight in and get assessed, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We want to make that admissions process seamless.”
Eventually, the Holyoke facility will add outpatient services as well.
For now, Sasenaraine said he and his team are still developing programs and hiring staff.
“All the back-of-the house planning is underway right now,” he said. “There has been a lot of interest in the organization. It’s brand new. Most facilities are retrofitted (into existing space).”
The new Valley Springs Behavioral Health Hospital, will have an outdoor space that is secure and enables people to garden, play basketball or just sit. There will be a gym as well as space set aside for group activities or art therapy.
Rooms will be semi-private with roommates, to combat loneliness and isolation.
While the facility will look like a hotel, he said it’ll be designed like a hospital. That means special attention to prevent self-harm. No sharp points or edges. No window blinds with strings. Fixtures like door handles and toilets are designed so they can’t be used to create ligatures.
Stays for most patients outside the 30-bed long-term unit are short, he said. It might take five to seven days for patients needing mental health stabilization. But stays can be as long as 30 days.
Across Holyoke, MiraVista Behavioral Health, the former Providence Hospital building on Route 5, is closing a 57-bed alcohol and drug abuse program. That Acute Treatment and Clinical Stabilization Services unit could not be sustained because state reimbursements for the program are not keeping up with operating expenses.
But MiraVista said this week it is adding two additional psychiatric units, bringing the hospital’s total to 88 beds.
At 45 Lower Westfield Road, Baystate and Kindred, now part of LifePoint, bought the Geriatric Authority building from the city for $250,000 in 2020.
The city closed the nursing home in 2014. Baystate and LifePoint spent about $2 million just to demolish the Geriatric Authority.