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Connecticut substance use disorder counselors: Staffing, service shortages show state’s lack of commitment to ‘most vulnerable’
Hartford Courant - 1/25/2022
Substance use disorder counselors and lawmakers called on the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Tuesday to fill vacancies and expand care at Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown and Blue Hills Hospital in Hartford, the two state-run facilities that offer medically-managed withdrawal management.
“The acute short-staffing, that predates the pandemic, has exposed this for what it is: a lack of commitment to provide care for the most vulnerable among us,” Brian Williams, a certified addiction counselor at CVH, said during a press call organized by SEIU 1199 New England, which represents health care workers in Connecticut.
Throughout the pandemic — and particularly in recent months — staffing shortages have sometimes crippled major hospital systems, as well as mental health and substance use disorder treatment providers across the state. At Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown and Blue Hills Hospital, a large swath of positions are vacant, according to workers at the facilities. Even more troubling, the workers say, is that the two facilities have not admitted new patients since late December.
DMHAS spokesperson Art Mongillo said in an email Tuesday that “Admissions to substance use treatment at Connecticut Valley Hospital and Blue Hills Hospital are not closed,” though he noted that throughout the pandemic, the facilities have at times temporarily halted admissions due to COVID-19.
But Williams said that the CVH admissions office has not been properly staffed for weeks and requests for support have piled up.
“You didn’t even have staff present to receive the calls of these folks and have the opportunity to redirect them,” he said. “There were hundreds of voicemail messages that were left...if anyone knows anything about addiction treatment, timing is critical.”
In response to the staffing issues, the union is calling on DMHAS to fill more than 300 vacancies at CVH, including 62 in the Addiction Services Division, by the end of April. The union also is requesting the creation of an additional 110 positions in Addiction Services by the end of July and that DMHAS immediately raise pay for some positions and invest in recruiting new employees.
Mongillo said that the department “continues to actively recruit for any vacancies.”
The number of Americans who died of fatal drug overdoses has increased significantly over the course of the pandemic. Last year, federal researchers reported that more than 100,000 Americans died of overdoses during the 12-month period ending in April 2021, a nearly 30% increase from the prior year.
Williams, the CVH counselor, said that the recent death of a 13-year-old Hartford boy due to a fentanyl overdose “screams loudly that things are out of control.”
“Yet while this out-of-control drug epidemic has continued unabated,” he said, “the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has reduced its capacity for providing care to the state’s hardest-to-serve population at its Middletown campus from 110 beds to about 30 over the past two years, with recent census being down to single digits.”
As of Tuesday, there were no available beds at either CVH in Middletown or Blue Hills Hospital, according to DMHAS data.
Victor Rodriguez, a certified addiction counselor at Blue Hills Hospital, said that he increasingly cannot provide support and treatment to those reaching out for help.
“We need to provide them with beds...they call and there’s no beds,” he said.
State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, said during the press conference that the current issues facing DMHAS reflect a “resource issue” and argued that the state needs to invest more in substance use disorder treatment, as well as in staff recruitment and retention. Reimbursement disparities mean that psychiatrists can often find higher-paying work in the private sector or in another state, he said.
“We are begging our government to do the right thing: to keep these places open, put the resources in and invest in hiring,” he said.
Eliza Fawcett can be reached at email@example.com.
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