Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown Credit: With permission from Hearst CT Media / All Rights Reserved / Hearst CT Media

Union members and two state senators are decrying the temporary reduction in admissions to two state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services treatment units designed to help Connecticut’s poorest residents overcome drug addiction.

The DMHAS Addiction Services Division detoxification and intensive treatment facilities at Blue Hills Treatment Center in Hartford and Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown unexpectedly stopped accepting admissions on Dec. 28 leaving hundreds of people who called for help after that date scrambling to find other services, according to members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199.

“The challenge of CVH closing its admissions office is that they didn’t even have the staff to refer those calls,” said Brian Williams, a Certified Addiction Counselor at CVH who is now on leave and working with the union for a few months.

Williams was one of several union members and advocates who attended a virtual press conference Tuesday calling on Gov. Ned Lamont and DHMAS to hire 330 more employees by April including 62 at Blue Hills and CVH to get the detox and intensive treatment units running again and provide more mental health services at other agency facilities.

DHMAS spokesman said Tuesday the facilities are not closed to admissions. 

“DMHAS is admitting patients to this level of care,” Arthur Mongillo said. “Over the course of the pandemic, clients or staff who have been on the substance use treatment units have tested positive for the COVID virus. During these occurrences DMHAS, following guidance from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Connecticut Department of Public Health, has quarantined the units and temporarily halted admissions. DMHAS continues to actively recruit for any vacancies.”

The union says of the 152 beds only 21 across both facilities are full at the moment due to the lack of staffing. The state says they’ve reduced the number of available beds down to 66 due to social distancing and 18 are currently fill.

The 330 positions are fully funded but vacant, union officials said. The union also wants DHMAS to hire an additional 110 employees at a cost of $6.6 million to double the Addiction Services Division at Blue Hills and CVH to provide a total of 304 beds at the facilities by July.

“There is a shortage of essential workers across the board including at DMHAS,” Lamont said when asked about the calls for more hiring at the agency during an unrelated event. “A sense of urgency? Absolutely. We’re reaching out every day, we’re recruiting, probably hired more than ever before this past year.”

The state is offering an increase in salary and is working with labor to develop a bonus pool, “so I can have a little extra dough,” Lamont said. “We’re short in many areas including DMHAS.”

But Lamont said he couldn’t commit to hiring 330 DMHAS employees by April. “If there is any way to do it, we’re trying to do it,” said Lamont, who added that the state is recruiting, training and doing aggressive outreach. “Can I get to 330 by the end of next month? I don’t know.”

The two locations are the only two addiction services providers in the state that offer medically managed withdrawal treatment – the highest level of care for substance abuse and addiction, union members said. Since they are run by DMHAS, the CVH and Blue Hills Addiction Services Division will accept uninsured and underinsured clients making them often the only hope for low-income individuals, said Kim Piper, a vice president with the union.

“State facilities do not turn away people,” Piper said. “These are the most vulnerable residents of the state and many are residents of color who can’t access treatment elsewhere and can’t afford it.”

There were 131 unused beds at both facilities as of 7 a.m. Jan. 24, the union said.

The narrowing of services comes at a time when the state, and the country, is facing a boom in the number of people suffering with addiction and mental health crisis due to the pandemic, union officials said.

Calls to 211 seeking substance abuse and addiction have increased by 33% in the last two years. At the same time, accidental fatal drug overdoses have also increased, state Department of Public Health data show. There were 1,378 fatal accidental drug overdoses in 2020 – up 14% from the year before. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 1, 2021 there were 1,249 confirmed fatal overdoses, which average about 124 a month, DPH figures said.

DMHAS had about 500 vacancies throughout the agency before the pandemic in March of 2020, union officials said. The agency now has more than 600 vacancies, Piper said. Despite having the funding, DMHAS hasn’t hired staff at a pace that has kept up with the vacancies resulting in less services for the state’s most vulnerable residents, she said.

“As the state has experienced fiscal challenges in the last decade, we’ve seen round after round of budget cuts and divestment of our social safety net,” said Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who represents CVH in the legislature.

Lesser called the halting of admissions at the facility an “emergency” and said “I 100% support this effort to beef up staffing.”

It’s a matter of life and death for those who face mental health and addiction crisis, said Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, who is also a critical care physician. “It’s heartbreaking we are having this conversation right now,” Anwar said. “We’re begging our government to do the right thing.”

Victor Rodriguez who has worked at Blue Hills since 1990 is just one example of how the facility can change lives, he said. His concern is that the doors won’t be open to help others who are seeking treatment for drug addiction.

“If you know anything about addiction, you know there is no waiting,” Rodriquez said. He was offered a bed when he showed up at Blue Hills in 1984 to deal with a heroin addiction. It saved his life and put him on the path to become a certified addiction counselor, he said. He still works at Blue Hills but will be retiring soon.

“Thank you for opening the door that day,” Rodriguez said.