Health care professionals talk Franklin County’s priority needs

  • Health care professionals met virtually Thursday, during which youth mental health, the health care provider scarcity and the lack of affordable housing were identified as the priority health needs for Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. SCREENSHOT

  • Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2022 6:09:26 PM

In a presentation to health care professionals on Thursday as part of the Community Health Needs Assessment, youth mental health, the health care provider scarcity and the lack of affordable housing were identified as the priority health needs for Franklin County and the North Quabbin region.

The Community Health Needs Assessment is mandated for any nonprofit hospital to complete every three years to ensure the needs are met in the communities they serve, explained Phoebe Walker, co-chair of the Community Benefits Advisory Committee and director of community services with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG).

“It’s a way that we can partner with all different community organizations to gather data from them, hear their thoughts and input, and put them into a report that many of us end up using, not just the hospitals,” Walker said.

Youth mental health

Walker said the process — which included a Regional Advisory Committee that surveyed public health officials across the county, focus groups, interview sessions and community conversations — involved taking last year’s reports and updating them with quantitative and qualitative data. Ultimately, a report will be finalized in the fall for distribution, and the findings in it will allow hospitals and insurers to prioritize funding to address the most significant needs of the community.

Of the eight hospitals and insurers that are part of the Coalition of Western Massachusetts Hospitals — Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield, Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Cooley Dickinson Health Care in Northampton, Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield, Berkshire Health System and Health New England — all identified youth mental health as a primary focus, according to Amanda Doster, principal author of the Community Health Needs Assessment.

In addition to hospitals and insurers, FRCOG, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, the Collaborative for Educational Services and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission were involved in this year’s assessment.

“The Western Mass COVID and Community Impact Survey did look at youth mental health, and some of the findings were that young people’s mental health was tremendously impacted by COVID,” Doster said. “Rates of anxiety and depression increased among young people.”

While those findings were the result of a study that encompassed youth in all of western Massachusetts, the findings matched Franklin County and North Quabbin data, she said.

“What we saw was that 45% of youth are feeling sad or hopeless more frequently than usual in the past 12 months,” Doster relayed. “And among people experiencing (post-traumatic stress disorder) reactions to COVID, youth with disabilities, LGBTQIA youth, female young people and people living in rural areas have these symptoms at higher rates than their peers.”

Using historic data from FRCOG’s Communities That Care Coalition, a survey of all eighth, tenth and twelfth graders showed that 2021 presented historic rates of depression and anxiety among young people.

“All of the hospitals chose to create this primary focus on youth mental health, and all of us will be working together on a response to that,” Walker added. “Once these reports are done for all the hospitals, there will be a regional report on youth mental health and some regional action that both the hospitals and insurers and community partners will work on together. … We realize just documenting this isn’t enough.”

Provider scarcity

Closer to home, Doster noted that health care provider scarcity and the lack of affordable housing rose to the top as priorities in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region.

“Our rates for physicians, dentists and other primary care providers are all unfavorable compared to state rates,” Doster said, “and in some cases have gotten worse even in the last three years.”

According to the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, Franklin County had a patient-to-provider ratio of 1,280-to-1 in 2019; in 2022, that ratio increased to 1,530-to-1. By comparison, the state average in 2022 was 960-to-1.

The new family medicine residency program at Baystate Franklin — the interns for which started Thursday — aims to address that problem, noted Ronald Bryant, president and chief administrative officer of Baystate Franklin. Four residencies per year will be offered to start, so over the first three years it will grow to have 12 participants enrolled.

Meanwhile, the mental health care provider ratio was more favorable compared to the state, and has even improved in recent years, Doster said. In 2022, there was a patient-to-provider ratio of 110-to-1 in Franklin County compared to the state’s 180-to-1.

“However, our focus group participants have repeated over and over again how challenging it is to navigate wait lists and referral systems to access care,” Doster said. “So even when it’s better than the state rate, what we hear across the board is people have to drive to Springfield, drive to Fitchburg or Gardner or Leominster, and navigating that remains a challenge, especially for people who don’t have access to transportation to leave the region to receive the care.”

Walker added that it is important to note that not all providers included in the data accept MassHealth.

Affordable housing

And finally, the lack of affordable housing was highlighted as a priority need.

“Housing is considered affordable when a household spends no more than 30% of its income on housing, including utilities,” Doster explained. “By that measure, about one-third of the households in our region are cost-burdened. In our region, a further 16% of households are severely cost-burdened, where they spend more than half of their income on housing.”

She noted housing stock in the area, because it’s rural, is lower than elsewhere.

“The explosion of short-term rentals and Airbnbs has taken even more housing off the market,” Doster said, noting that isn’t necessarily unique to Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. “In absence of more building and more resources, prices will continue to increase and people’s ability to live here will decrease.”

Walker said the data collected as part of the report is being finalized, and with respect to youth mental health, the Coalition of Western Massachusetts Hospitals will work as a region to create a summary on youth mental health. Individual reports on the focus groups will also be written.

“We are committed to working together to figure out what we can address,” she said, “and also to spend the time to hear more from young people.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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