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Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and Open Sky Team Up on Pilot Projects

October 2021

Earlier this year, the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and Open Sky Community Services teamed up on two innovative pilot projects to address ongoing behavioral health challenges in the Greater Worcester area.

The two pilots include a mobile respite project to help reduce emergency department boarding at UMass Memorial-Harrington in Southbridge, and a flexible support project to support students experiencing homelessness in Worcester Public Schools and their families.

Having the freedom, flexibility and funding to innovate can make a significant difference in the ability of providers to try new ways of tackling complex problems and improving the system of care,” said Ken Bates, President and CEO of Open Sky.  “We were pleased to partner with the Department of Mental Health on these pilot projects, which demonstrated promising outcomes and which we hope to continue during the coming year.”

These pilots have demonstrated the power of collaboration and innovation in serving people who are experiencing behavioral health challenges, homelessness and other complex needs.

“Emergency room boarding and supporting the mental health needs of individuals experiencing homelessness and their families have long been priorities of the Department of Mental Health (DMH),” said Massachusetts DMH Commissioner Brooke Doyle. “We are happy to be a part of an expanded emergency room, mental health and homelessness response in which we hope will become a foundation for the future.”

The mobile respite project enabled a team of people to reach out to individuals experiencing behavioral health crises in the emergency department, or inpatient units, who need assistance and support so they may return home and avoid future ER visits or hospitalizations.  Emergency department “boarding” occurs when there is a delay in locating an inpatient bed due to high demand and limited availability. This is a significant issue for patients as well as hospital emergency departments.

 

During the pilot, the team connected with 19 people and 84 percent of them did not return to the emergency department, indicating the team was able to refer people to services that met the individuals’ needs.

“This initiative, in conjunction with our psychiatric emergency services, has provided creative and flexible alternatives to existing types of support, and thus allowed many patients to avoid long waits in the emergency room and the need to return so often. This has made a significant difference for patients, their families, and the enormous demand on hospital resources,” said Greg Mirhej, vice president of behavioral health services at UMass Memorial-Harrington Hospital.

The project is expected to continue at UMass Memorial-Harrington and has now expanded to St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester.

In the second pilot, 13 student families in the Worcester Public Schools who were experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity for the first time were referred for services.  Families received comprehensive short-term stabilization services and an array of flexible clinical and supportive services including housing support, financial assistance, counseling and skills-teaching.

Of the referred families, 58 percent were experiencing homelessness. During the project, four families became permanently housed, one family was admitted to a shelter and two families are still actively engaged in housing searches.  All 13 families received support, stabilization and connection to needed services.

“Worcester Public Schools is committed to supporting the needs of youth and families experiencing homelessness.  We appreciate the partnership and efforts of the Department of Mental Health and Open Sky to help us provide vital support and services for the families we served in the pilot. We look forward to continued collaboration,” said School Superintendent Maureen Binienda, Superintendent of Schools.  

“We are so pleased to work with DMH and other partners to find creative ways to meet the needs of our community,” said Erica Robert, senior vice president of community services at Open Sky..  She said that Open Sky plans to continue to explore innovative ways of improving care and the system of services with DMH over the next year.

 

About Open Sky Community Services

Open Sky Community Services, Inc. offers a wide range of services for adults, adolescents, and children with mental health challenges, developmental and intellectual disabilities, substance use disorders, brain injury, homelessness and other complex challenges throughout Central Massachusetts. Open Sky, which was formed through the affiliation of Alternatives Unlimited, Inc. and The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, has over 1,200 dedicated employees and an annual budget of $89M with more than 100 programs throughout the region. For more information, please visit www.openskycs.org.

About the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health

The Department of Mental Health (DMH), as the State Mental Health Authority, assures and provides access to services and supports to meet the mental health needs of individuals of all ages; enabling them to live, work and participate in their communities. DMH operates five regional offices as well as inpatient beds at seven locations across the state. DMH also shapes mental health policy and retains licensing authority over more than 2,500 beds in privately owned facilities.