Massachusetts hospital facing potential fine over closed beds amid nurses strike

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Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., is facing a potential fine if it does not either begin permanently closing inpatient behavioral health services that have been closed during a nurses strike, or immediately plan to reopen these services, according to a letter sent to the facility by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

In the letter, which was shared with Becker's, acting commissioner Margret Cooke said the state has determined that the closure of all inpatient behavioral health beds triggers the requirements of the essential service hearing process.

"Although the hospital has asserted that the closure of these beds is temporary due to the ongoing nursing strike, these beds have been closed for more than three months," Ms. Cooke wrote in the letter to Saint Vincent CEO Carolyn Jackson. "The department has repeatedly requested that the hospital provide a date certain for the inpatient behavioral health beds reopening, and the hospital has failed to provide one. In our most recent call, you clearly stated there is no plan in place to reopen the beds. Therefore, at this time, the department requires that the hospital begin the essential services process for the closure of the hospital's inpatient behavioral health services or immediately plan to reopen these essential services."

The hospital was not commenting as of Nov. 28.

Ms. Cooke said in her letter that Saint Vincent notified the state on July 28 that on Aug. 2, the hospital would reduce the number of inpatient behavioral health beds from 20 to 10 beds. On Aug. 12, Saint Vincent notified the state that it intended to temporarily close its remaining behavioral health beds, and that closure occurred on Aug. 16.

"Since that time, the department has relied on the hospital's assertion that these behavioral health beds would be reopening as soon as possible, no later than after the end of the Massachusetts Nurses Association strike, which the hospital anticipated would be less than six months," the letter states.

However, the nurses' strike has been ongoing since March 8, and the inpatient behavioral health beds have been closed for more than three months.

Ms. Cooke said the hospital "has made no plans to acquire additional nursing staff to reopen the beds," and therefore, the state expects that within 10 calendar days of receiving her letter Saint Vincent will notify the state of its intent to submit notice to close the inpatient behavioral health beds.

"The department expects that the hospital will then follow the essential services closure timeline … to ensure the department may schedule a timely hearing. Failure to meet these requirements may result in a fine of no less than $1,000 and not more than $10,000 for each day the deficiency continues to exist," she said.

The scheduled hearing will be canceled if the hospital reopens all behavioral health beds prior to the hearing.

The primary remaining issue in bargaining is the union's demand for striking nurses to return to work in their previous roles.

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