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Future of Willmar mental health hospital unknown

The Community Behavioral Health Hospital was nearly ready to open Aug. 7, 2008, in Willmar. Now state officials may temporarily close it to be "reconfigured" for a different type of patient. Tribune file photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County officials say the 16-bed adult mental health hospital that opened a year ago in Willmar could be closed down while the state makes another adjustment to how mental health care is provided.

State officials, however, denied the hospital would be shut down but said it may be "reconfigured" to serve a different type of patient who is currently falling through the cracks.

That change could be made "without shutting it down," said Read Sulik, Assistant Commissioner for Chemical and Mental Health Services.

Whatever the future holds for the psychiatric hospital, local officials are concerned.

At a recent Family Services meeting, Kandiyohi County Commissioner Richard Falk asked if it was true that Willmar's Community Behavioral Health Hospital was at risk of being closed.

When Family Services Director Jay Kieft acknowledged the Willmar facility could be at risk, Falk responded that "everybody should be aware this is the truth."

Sulik said he understands the "fear and concern" that the state may be shutting down the new community hospitals. "But that's not what's going on here," he said.

The goal is to transition and transform the program and improve care and efficiency while maintaining access to care, said Sulik.

Some of that transformation process is already under way.

Family Services supervisor Carmen Clementson told the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners the state recently closed the 16-bed mental health hospital in Cold Spring and will reopen it in January as a long-term care facility.

She said the state is in the process of closing a similar facility in Wadena while it searches for ways to "be efficient in how to provide care."

Sulik said the Cold Spring hospital was "taken off-line" because of staffing issues and low patient numbers, but he said no decisions have been made about the closure or restructuring of any of the remaining nine hospitals.

Following the closure of regional treatment centers, the state opened 10 community mental health hospitals as a new way to provide short-term, acute inpatient care for adults.

But the census at the small community hospitals has been low, with about half of the beds occupied. "We have all of these beautiful beds that are sitting there empty," said Clementson.

At the same time, there has been a drastic shortage of beds for patients who need long-term mental health care, especially those with developmental disabilities or aggressive behavior.

The state is now searching for ways to fill that gap.

Sulik said the Cold Spring hospital will be reconfigured into a "prototype" to provide a "new level of care" to meet long-term needs of mentally ill patients. If the new model of care is successful in Cold Spring, it may be replicated in other communities, like Willmar.

Tweaking the new mental health care system is not a big surprise.

Kandiyohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen said it was no secret the system would be "correcting itself" once it was implemented.

Maximizing federal dollars is another factor in restructuring how the 16-bed hospitals function, said Sulik.

Currently the hospital in Willmar is not eligible to receive federal medical assistance funds.

Meetings with stakeholders will "define what the new service structure should look like and where services will be provided have just begun," according to the Department of Human Services.

Those meetings will include consumers and families, employees, law enforcement, the courts, health plans, community hospitals and other providers.

Clementson said the revamping of the system won't happen quickly, "but it is going to happen."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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