CAMBRIDGE — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Saturday offered her views on rising gas prices, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the adolescent behavioral health crisis in hospital emergency rooms during a visit to Cambridge.
Pelosi, a Democrat, spoke during a roundtable event at the Cambridge Health Alliance at the invitation of US Representative Katherine Clark, the assistant house speaker, whose district includes part of Cambridge. They were joined by two other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, Ayanna Pressley — who also represents part of Cambridge — and Lori Trahan.
Pelosi’s visit was billed as an opportunity to discuss the impact of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act on health care and its cost. The plan, signed into law last March, set aside about $5.3 billion for Massachusetts to help the state recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. In December, Governor Charlie Baker signed a $4 billion spending bill to disperse those funds.
A year after the massive spending bill was signed, rising gas prices and inflation have dominated economic headlines. Pelosi blamed the increased gas prices on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine. In response to Russia’s aggression, President Biden has implemented an array of economic sanctions on Russia, including a ban on oil imports from that country.
“Right now we have the Putin price hike for gas,” said Pelosi, responding to a reporter’s question.
In addressing the rising prices, Pelosi said the federal government should focus its efforts on shifting to alternative energy sources and resist calls to allow more drilling on public lands.
“This is not to be an excuse to destroy the planet,” Pelosi said.
Turning to the bill recently passed by the Republican-dominated Florida legislature that would forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, Pelosi talked about the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in her San Francisco district who live on the streets.
The Florida legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, will further marginalize members of the LGBTQ community, Pelosi said.
“People have to know the damage that they do,” she said.
Pressley called the bill “state-sanctioned hate” and said legislation can reverse it.
“If you can legislate hate, then we can legislate equity. We can legislate justice. We can legislate healing,” she said.
Leading up to the discussion about the Florida bill, members of the congressional delegation heard from Cambridge Health Alliance officials about the struggles of adolescents with behavioral health needs who must wait for days in hospital emergency departments for an inpatient bed to open up. The pandemic has contributed to the high demand for mental health care by children and adolescents, the officials said.
“We are definitely in a dire situation here,” said Janine M. Hogan, nurse manager for emergency services at Cambridge Hospital.
Every month, Hogan said her department sees 25 to 50 adolescents in need of inpatient mental health care who must stay in the emergency unit for an extended period of time before a hospital bed becomes available. Last month, the median wait time for a bed was four and a half days and last week an adolescent waited 15 days in the emergency department for a bed, she said.
“Imagine being a parent and sitting in the emergency room. And the child’s life is on hold for that time,” said Dr. Jacob Venter, vice chief of psychiatry operations and division chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance.
When the children eventually get admitted, clinicians see a “wildfire of pain and suffering,” said Dr. Sharmila Mehta, director of child and adolescent inpatient psychology at the health system.
“It shows up in tremendous aggression, tremendous desperation, depression, self-injurious behavior,” she said.
Dr. Assaad Sayah, the chief executive of Cambridge Health Alliance, said he hopes to ease some of the burden with the opening of 69 psychiatric beds for children at Somerville Hospital. The hospital plans to open its first unit for adolescent psychiatric patients in the coming days, he said.
The American Rescue Plan Act made $4 billion available for mental and behavioral health services, according to Clark’s office.
“We have millions and millions of dollars coming into the Commonwealth to address this growing behavioral health need. We know it is at a crisis point. We heard today about the waiting times,” Clark, a Revere Democrat, said in an interview. “This funding is coming to help meet that need and make sure that we are taking care of the whole person, especially our young people who have been so impacted by this pandemic.”