Boston Children’s Hospital is acquiring Franciscan Children’s as part of a plan to respond to the soaring number of children who need mental health care.
Leaders of both hospitals said they will expand mental health treatment, work together to recruit more staff — instead of competing for workforce — and upgrade rehabilitation facilities for children with complex medical conditions who need post-acute care.
The deal will close July 1. Franciscan Children’s will keep its name, hospital leaders said.
Boston Children’s, the biggest pediatric health care provider in the region, plans to spend more than $500 million to upgrade facilities and construct a new building at the Franciscan campus in Brighton.
Hospital leaders said they will increase the number of inpatient beds from 98 to 127, nearly doubling the number of behavioral health beds from 32 to 56. They plan to hire up to 200 new employees by 2030.
"This is a big deal for pediatric health care," said Dr. Joseph Mitchell, chief executive of Franciscan Children’s.
"This was really born out of a sense of urgency that we've got to do more to address the children's mental health epidemic, which has really been the great tragedy of the pandemic," he said.
The number of children with severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts soared during the COVID pandemic, and hospitals in Boston and elsewhere are still struggling to keep up. Studies indicate the increase is related to the stress and social disruption of the pandemic.
More than half of U.S. teen girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
In Massachusetts, more than 50 children across the state were stuck in emergency departments waiting for psychiatric beds on June 19, the most recent data available, according to the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association. This is a decline from the spring, but still a stress on the health care system — and a hardship for families left waiting for care.
Dr. Kevin Churchwell, chief executive of Boston Children’s, said before the pandemic the hospital typically saw about 10 kids a week with severe anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts coming to the emergency department. During the peak of the COVID years, that jumped to 90 children per day. In recent weeks, the numbers hovered around 20 to 30 children a day, he said.
"It becomes overwhelming, the stress that it puts on our emergency department," Churchwell said. "Our physicians, nurses, caregivers are experiencing that on top of everything else — trauma that comes to us, infection that comes to us, all the other issues that come to us in the [emergency department]."
Churchwell and Mitchell did not say whether they would seek to raise prices for medical services after Franciscan Children's joins Boston Children's, the region's highest-priced pediatric hospital. They said mental health care in general is underfunded but argued their deal would help to contain health care costs by streamlining care.
Last year, Boston Children's opened an $1 billion expansion while Tufts Medical Center closed its pediatric inpatient services, prompting concerns about consolidation.
Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Medical Center also have hospital beds for children.
Franciscan and Boston Children's Hospital leaders announced that they were negotiating a deal in 2021 and received approval from state regulators last year.
This article was originally published on June 29, 2023.