WILLMAR—Emily Piper, Minnesota Commissioner of Human Services, outlined the need Wednesday for a new children’s psychiatric hospital in Willmar and assured staff that her department will advocate for legislative action on funding.
“I want it to be a state-of-the-art facility for kids and the people who work here,” Piper said during a meeting at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Services facility on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.
In his budget proposal that was released earlier this week, Gov. Mark Dayton included $7.5 million to build a new facility to better serve children and adolescents with complex mental health needs.
The plan includes a stipulation to build it at an as-yet-to-be-determined site in Willmar.
The need for a new facility has been on the radar screen of legislators and the Department of Human Services for many months.
Staff and state officials said Wednesday that the demand for beds and for appropriate staffing and programming is urgent. Although the building on the technology campus is licensed for 16 beds, its census is currently capped at five because of staffing and safety issues.
There’s a waiting list of 20 children and teens, most of whom have high-acuity psychiatric needs and cannot be placed elsewhere.
To add to the urgency, the clock is ticking on the program’s lease for its building on the technology campus.
MinnWest’s owners gave notice two years ago that they wanted the space for future expansion, an option contained in the agreements between the campus and the state when the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center—which has long housed a program for adolescents—was sold to MinnWest in 2006.
Negotiations are underway to extend the lease, allowing the child and adolescent behavioral health program to stay where it is until new space can be found.
Local legislators said they will work hard to support the governor’s request for construction funds.
Rep. Dave Baker told staff and city and county officials at Wednesday’s meeting that he will carry the bill in the House. Sen. Andrew Lang gave similar assurances for his support in the Senate.
“We’re hoping at the end of this session we’ll have a lot more clarity,” Baker said.
A bonding bill did not come out of the Legislature last year, but money for a new facility was carried in both the House and Senate versions of a bill that passed out of conference committee.
With the introduction this week of the governor’s budget proposal, Piper said one of the next steps is for Department of Human Services staff to testify at legislative committee hearings about the child and teen behavioral health program and the need for a new facility. Those meetings will start next week, she said.
The goal is to provide education, context and background for legislators so there can be “a more informed conversation” as decisions are made, she said.
Local officials emphasized the importance of retaining the program in Willmar.
“It’s a big moment for Willmar,” Baker said.
That was echoed by Jim Sieben, president of the MinnWest Technology Campus, who urged support to keep the facility and staff here.
“If this staff goes, this is gone from our community,” he said.
With 30 technology-oriented businesses and 500 employees now housed on the former Willmar Regional Treatment Center campus, additional space for growth was needed “a few years ago,” Sieben said. But the owners of the campus are committed enough to keeping the behavioral health facility in Willmar that they are willing to negotiate a lease extension until a new facility can be built, he said.
As the funding request works its way through the Legislature, it will be important to demonstrate community support, he said. “It makes a difference.”
A major goal of a new facility is to improve care for Minnesota children and teens in need of acute behavioral health services. The plan calls for an environment that’s both physically safer and more therapeutic. It also will include flexibility to group patients in units appropriate to their ages and conditions, and it will allow staff levels to increase.
Piper said Wednesday that she wants to engage the current staff in designing the new building. Input also will be sought from families, she said.
West Central Tribune by Anne Polta