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Finding common ground

Dr. R.J. Kennedy is a busy guy. The psychiatrist splits his time serving patients at several facilities throughout the metro area.

All the commuting makes him appreciate the days of the week when he and his wife Dr. Shalene Kennedy, also a psychiatrist, have just a short trip down the road to the Prairie St. John clinic in Woodbury.

The Woodbury couple have been working for the clinic since it opened about three years ago.

"The days we're both at (Prairie St. John in Woodbury) are nice because we're raising four boys, so we can both be close to home," said Kennedy, whose typical work week also includes serving patients at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul and in Carver and Scott counties. "This is a profession that gives you a demanding schedule, because there's a definite need for mental health care."

The Kennedys have worked their married life together in the profession and are hoping, as employees of Prairie St. John, to see the Fargo-based provider expand its presence in Woodbury.

Currently, Prairie St. John is at the center of a fight at the Legislature and in the mental health community to bring a 144-bed psychiatric hospital to Woodbury. The hospital is proposed to be built in the city's medical campus district.

The city of Woodbury has vocalized its support for the facility, with planning officials on record as saying the facility fits well within the city's vision for the area.

But Prairie St. John officials are having a tougher time selling their plan at the state Legislature. Because the state has a moratorium on new hospitals, Prairie St. John must seek an exemption from the Legislature.

Finding support

Woodbury-area legislators have been generally supportive of the proposed facility, but support across the board is lacking, partly due to a Minnesota Department of Health report issued in February that stated the facility was not in the public's best interest.

The report concluded the proposed inpatient beds the mental health facility would provide do not fix what some are calling a crisis of a lack of support for the mentally ill and chemically dependent.

That's where John Ryan comes in. The Woodbury resident is employed as the special projects liaison for Prairie St. John. His current focus is working to help the provider get approval for the hospital.

Ryan said Prairie St. John's is committed to its vision to open a hospital in Woodbury and is hoping the momentum of support it started in two state House committees can carry over to the Senate.

"Our local legislators have been very supportive in this process," Ryan said.

Rep. Marsha Swails is the chief author of a bill in the House that received support from two legislative health committees in the House.

On the Senate side, Sen. Kathy Saltzman authored a similar bill, but said it hasn't yet found the support it has seen in the House.

A Senate committee that heard the proposal chose not to vote on the bill.

Yet Saltzman said she feels that a recent possible change in strategy on behalf of Prairie St. John might help the facility gain the approval it is looking for.

Last week, Saltzman, Swails and Rep. Julie Bunn of Lake Elmo met with Prairie St. John's officials, Woodbury city leaders and officials at Woodwinds Hospital to discuss some of the concerns that health care providers like HealthEast and Fairview have over the proposed mental hospital.

Proposal may shift focus

According to Saltzman and Swails, Prairie St. John's officials said they may alter their proposal to build a hospital with a specific focus on child and adolescent health care. The proposal would still help alleviate the current shortage in inpatient beds for psychiatric care in the Twin Cities, said Saltzman, who added she would seek a Senate floor vote on the item if the revised proposal became official.

"I think some of the most compelling stories we're hearing on this issue are the families who have to drive four hours just to see their children who were places in facilities outside the metro area," Saltzman said.

Ryan said in an interview with the Bulletin last month that bed shortages in the Twin Cities for mental health patients in crisis was the main reason for Prairie St. John's proposal.

"We realized with our Fargo hospital that as much as 10 percent of our patients were from the Twin Cities," Ryan said. "A lot of those are children and adolescents, and their parents can't afford to stay with them if they live and work in the Twin Cities."

Ryan said Prairie St. John's has offered video conferencing for parents who are unable to travel the 200-plus visit their children while they are being hospitalized. But he said the efforts fall short of being able to giving the families true face-to-face contact during a crucial period for their children.

"That's one of the things we strive for, to allow parents to actively participate in the treatment of their children," Ryan said. "That's why we want to be in Woodbury. We see an opportunity to fill the need that exists for all those families in the Twin Cities to be so much closer to their children while they're being hospitalized."

The Kennedys said they, too, see the opportunity to fill a need.

"We truly don't have a facility that serves the east metro area," Kennedy said. "And what Prairie has a chance to do here in Woodbury is unique and can benefit a lot of people that are hurting."