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New name, new purpose

Along with the layoff of seven employees in April, the Community Behavioral Health Hospital has been turned into a "step-down" facility for individuals with mental illness. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Willmar's 16-bed psychiatric hospital is not a hospital anymore.

Along with the layoff of seven employees in April, the Community Behavioral Health Hospital has been turned into a "step-down" facility for individuals with mental illness and is now referred to by the Department of Human Services as Minnesota Psychiatric Services -- Willmar.

The facility's identity and role in the state's mental health care delivery system is "still in the process of transitioning," said Patrice Vick, communications manager for the DHS. Its new mission should better meet the region's needs for mental health care, she said.

"We're hopeful this will help fill some of the gaps in the service we've identified in the last 18 months," said Carmen Clementson, Kandiyohi County Family Services supervisor. "It's still a viable resource for our community -- just in a different way."

Built in 2008 as an acute-care mental health hospital as part of the state's plan to shutter the Willmar Regional Treatment Center, the 16-bed hospital never really worked as planned.

The census there was low -- many days only half the beds were filled -- and people were being kept there longer than needed. Clients who didn't need the acute care anymore, but weren't yet stable enough to transition into a residential setting, had no middle ground to move to.

Providing that middle ground is the new role of the Willmar facility.

Clementson said it is now being used as a "step-down" facility. Late last week she said all the beds there were full, an indication that needs are now being met.

Kandiyohi County built the $3 million hospital with the assurance that lease payments from the state would pay off the bonds in 10 years.

There were 10 of these small hospitals built throughout the state. The one in Cold Spring, built by a private investor, has been permanently closed and the one in Wadena is being turned into a step-down facility like Willmar.

In this region, 16-bed acute care hospitals continue to operate in Alexandria, Annandale and Fergus Falls, said Clementson.

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl is confident the Willmar facility will remain open.

"We're not concerned about the facility closing," said Kleindl. "The state has assured me we're safe at this time and there's no need to panic."

Vick said additional changes at the Willmar site are not expected because the transition to a step-down facility was based on regional direction.

She said the region "will continue to review its needs so that the array of services meet the area's ongoing needs" and that DHS wants to foster regional partnerships to create a better integrated care system and coordination of mental health services.

In March, when the Department of Human Services announced it was going to lay off 200 employees in April and close and revamp facilities as part of its redesign package, the Legislature intervened.

A bill signed in May put a halt to the lay-offs and required legislative and local involvement in the redesign process.

That came too late for the seven Willmar employees who were laid off. Four of those took jobs elsewhere in the DHS system and three accepted the lay-off, said Vick.

"The lay-offs had already occurred during the session," she said.

But the legislation did include language that is being carried forward, including involvement of an advisory task force to study the future redesign of services. That bill requires that the Willmar and Wadena facilities remain open and provide mental health services "based on the needs of the community."

Kandiyohi County Family Services Director Jay Kieft said he was excited to see legislative wording that will require the state to make decisions about mental health care services that are based on the "real needs" of the community.

"That sort of language is hopeful," said Kieft. "We'd like to have that local and regional influence."

That legislation also required that the dental clinic in Willmar, which has equipment and staff trained specifically to treat individuals with disabilities, remain open. That clinic is open once a week on the former Regional Treatment Center campus and is an important service for individuals who are unable to be treated in traditional dental clinics because of their special needs.

Carolyn Lange

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

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