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Future of Willmar's mental health facility still unknown

WILLMAR -- Willmar's 16-bed mental health facility will remain open at least through the end of March of 2012.

After that, it's anyone's guess what will happen to the building, which opened just three years ago.

Lucinda Jesson, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said that during the next few months there will be "a lot of discussion" about the future of the facility before a decision is made whether to close it or keep it open.

She made the comments Friday during a visit to Willmar.

Jesson was scheduled to visit the mental health facility to help her assess how the facility could best fit the mental health needs of the region.

The facility opened in the fall of 2008 as one of 10 secure acute mental health hospitals in the state built to replace regional treatment centers that had been shuttered.

Shortly after it opened, however, the hospital beds weren't being filled and closure was discussed.

After several transitions, the facility is no longer functioning as a hospital but operates as an intensive residential treatment facility where clients can come and go voluntarily.

But even with the new classification, the facility had been slated to close earlier this year after.

Jesson said her department felt the "decision was made too quickly" and she was able to "postpone" the closure date to next March to give the department and legislators time to determine the mental health needs of the community and how the Willmar facility could best fill those needs.

"We pushed off the closure to give time for discussion about what is the answer," said Jesson.

Since the facility underwent its last transformation the beds have been fully utilized and have been meeting the needs of an important mental health care niche, said Jesson. The high occupancy rates exceeded projections, she said.

By Carolyn Lange