DHMAS worker (Jamarri Johnson/ SEIU)

HARTFORD, CT  —  Accidental drug overdoses were up at least by 13% in 2020, but according to members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services remains underfunded in Gov. Ned Lamont’s two-year budget.

“We absolutely need to restore our bed capacity, but we need to go beyond that,” Monique Anderson, a mental health assistant with DMHAS’ Addiction Services Division at Connecticut Valley Hospital, said in her testimony to the Appropriations Committee this week. “Addiction Services needs $6.3 million to fully staff the division, and to add an additional unit, or 30 more beds, so we can provide proper care to the residents of Connecticut who are struggling with increased addiction levels.”

The union rallied outside Blue Hills campus of Connecticut Valley Hospital’s Addiction Services Division Wednesday morning to draw attention to the need for increased mental health services during the pandemic.

Lamont gave DMHAS an extra $6 million in funding for fiscal year 2022. DMHAS Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittman had asked for an additional $27 million above the agency’s $652 million budget. DHMAS was one of several state agencies that had workers’ compensation claims and human resources and labor relations funding shifted to the state Department of Administrative Services.

Taking into account the $19 million shift to DAS, Delphin-Rittman wound up with a $636 million 2022 budget from Lamont which reflects a nearly $6 million increase that will largely go to behavioral health programs for low income adults on Medicaid, forensic services, youth services and a $553,750 allotment to fund prevention and enforcement activities related to the legalization of marijuana.

Delphin-Rittman told legislators on Feb. 23 that Lamont’s budget would allow DMHAS to continue its mission of providing a “recovery-oriented system of care for people with serious psychiatric and substance abuse conditions.”

But across the agency, health care workers with the union contend that staff shortages and a shortage of recovery beds are impacting patient care and putting employees at risk.

Anderson works within a unique unit at CVH that allows women who are sexual assault victims to deal their addiction, she said. But since the pandemic began impacting the state a year ago, CVH has been forced to reduce the number of treatment beds from 110 to 32.

That means women now must attend rehab in a co-ed environment, Anderson said. “Which changes some people’s willingness to go into rehab,” she said.

The reduction in treatment beds comes at a time when accidental overdoses in 2020 were at the highest level the state has ever seen. 

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin (Jamarri Johnson/ SEIU)

According to the state Department of Public Health, the state recorded 1,339 accidental overdose deaths in 2020 – a 13% percent jump from 2019 when there were 1,200 fatal overdoses. The catch is that the state Office of the Medical Examiner is still waiting for toxicology and other information on 78 pending 2020 cases. If the bulk of those are confirmed to be accidental overdoses, the increase over 1,200 could reach more than 15%.  

The figures represent a 33% increase in the number of fatal overdoses since 2018, union members said.

“We know there has been a rising need for mental health support,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told the crowd gathered outside Blue Hill recovery center Wednesday morning. “If ever there was a moment when we needed to expand the resources for mental health treatment it’s now. The pandemic has made everything so much harder.”

The lack of funding is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities and low income families, said union President Rob Baril. “This is about who gets seen and who gets heard,” Baril said. “Clearly the most vulnerable are not seen and not heard.”

Baril contends that the DMHAS mobile crisis units that are supposed to operate throughout the state on a 24-hour basis have large gaps in coverage on nights and weekends and the service which deals with those having a mental health crisis is hard to reach since it can’t be accessed through 911.

Baril is calling for the state to hire 74 staffers through DHMAS to fully fund the crisis mobile units as they were intended. The cost would be about $6 million, Baril said.

“District 1199 believes that mobile crisis services provide the most effective strategy for responding to mental health emergencies, preventing suicides and overdose deaths, and reducing psychiatric hospital bed use, and we’ve seen the need for them skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Baril said.

The need for more staffing has also hit group homes for those with psychiatric issues, Kim Ackerman told legislators in her testimony Tuesday. Ackerman works as a direct support staff member at the Mullen Hill Whole Life group home in Windham.

She and her coworkers have been bit, punched and kicked by clients; “we do not blame the individuals but rather our subpar staffing,” Ackerman said.

The unit is now often staffed with only five caregivers, she said. “This is incredibly unsafe for both the staff as well as the individuals,” Ackerman said. “Some of these individuals are one to one, meaning they require a caregiver to care for them and them alone. Short staffing makes it incredibly hard to provide the care they deserve.”