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City gets left out of mental health hospital picture

A Fargo-based mental health care group that had plans to open a 60-bed in-patient facility for adolescents in Woodbury that stalled last year at the state Legislature, received approval from the House and the Senate over the last week for a scaled-down proposal to allow construction of a smaller facility in the west metro.

A House bill authored by Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury that would exempt Prairie St. John's from a metro wide moratorium on new hospitals passed last Tuesday with 117-13 vote in the House. The Senate passed a similar version of the bill last week, officials in Swails office at the Capitol said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was expected to sign the bill, said Prairie St. John's officials, who were somewhat disappointed they could not get approval for a Woodbury in-patient facility that was planned over a year ago, but concluded that a 20-bed facility in the Twin Cities was an appreciated compromise from Senate leaders on a health and human services committee who last year would not allow the facility in Woodbury get a floor vote.

The modified version of the bill that was introduced at this Legislative session states that Fargo-based Prairie St. John's would be allowed to build a 20-bed in-patient facility for adolescents in the Twin Cities west metro area. The communities being looked at are along or near the I-94/694 corridor in Hennepin County, said John Ryan, who works out of the Prairie St. John's outpatient clinic in Woodbury.

"I don't think this bill has fully solved the problem we face with having enough in-patient facilities in the metro, but it's a step in the right direction," Ryan said.

Last year after Prairie St. John's officials initial proposal to build a 144-bed in-patient facility in Woodbury's medical campus district faced opposition from factions in the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee, the group revised their plans to focus on adolescents and scaled down their plans to 60 beds. But the revisions were not approved and the project sat in limbo over the legislative off season.

But this spring, Rep. Swails continued to work with Prairie St. John's officials on finding a compromise that would allow the group to build any facility that could bring more in-patient care to adolescents struggling with mental health issues.

Swails and Prairie St. John's officials ultimately put together a bill they felt could achieve something, rather than nothing in terms of adding much needed in-patient care to the metro area sooner rather than later, Swails said.

"Far too often in Minnesota, families face serious difficulty in getting timely and appropriate mental health care for their children," Swails said after the bill cleared both the House and the Senate. "The good news is that we were able to identify and address the concerns that stood in the way of moving forward with this much needed facility."

Swails, who is a teacher at Woodbury High School, said she decided to stick with modified version of the bill even after it became clear that building such a facility in Woodbury would not be possible as the state has a moratorium on new hospitals in the metro area.

"The only way the Senate would agree to it was if it was situated in the western metro, and although it would have been wonderful to see this happen in Woodbury, it was something I was passionate about seeing built," said Swails, who said the issue of the availability of mental health resources is close to her heart.

"I've lost students to suicide and have had many students suffer from depression and mental health issues," Swails said. "If this bill helps save even one more life, then it was worth all the work. That's why at this point, although this is a compromise, I don't care where the hospital is located, because it is needed."

Ryan said the Prairie St. John's day treatment center in Woodbury would benefit from the planned in-patient facility in the west metro, because it would allow for continuity of care for adolescents who may need hospitalization.

"It would have been great to see the facility come to Woodbury, and maybe some date in the future we will still it come to fruition," Ryan said. "But for what were able to achieve at this time, it was a win-win for everybody."