May 2, 2024 - News

Washington County crisis mental health facility closes

photo of Washington County crisis stabilization unit

The site of the Washington County Crisis Stabilization Unit. Photo: Alex Golden/Axios

The Washington County Crisis Stabilization Unit, established in part to divert people with mental health problems away from jail, has closed.

Why it matters: The closure exacerbates existing struggles to provide inpatient mental health care, with beds lacking statewide.

State of play: University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences staff was operating the 16-bed unit and said in March it would have to stop in June.

The big picture: Patients have to be in an acute mental health crisis, like being suicidal or homicidal, to be admitted to an inpatient facility, said Buster Lackey, executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  • This leaves patients and their families in frustrating situations trying to get help. Lackey estimated the organization receives 400-600 calls a month from people struggling to get treatment for loved ones.
  • Patients generally stay 72 hours unless a psychiatrist can justify keeping them longer, but the medications they need can take weeks to fully kick in.

What they're saying: "The ones that they did help — I don't know what they're going to do now," Lackey told Axios after the initial announcement that the unit would likely close.

The other side: "It is our responsibility to apply our resources where they will serve the greatest number of people," UAMS spokesperson Leslie Taylor said in a written statement to Axios before the closure.

  • "Unfortunately, this facility is lightly utilized relative to its designed capacity, and it's no longer feasible for us to continue to provide the necessary staff and resources needed to maintain the facility."

Flashback: The state told the county last year it would cut monthly funding for the facility by one-third — from $90,000 to $60,000 — starting in October 2023.

  • Data from the state showed the Washington County unit saw 14 patients a month at a cost of about $7,860 per patient. The Pulaski County unit saw an average of 67 patients at $1,761 each.
  • A state pilot program created by Act 423 of 2017 paved the way for stabilization units in Washington, Sebastian, Craighead and Pulaski counties.
  • The Washington County unit reopened in 2022 after being shut down for a year. Ozark Guidance had been running the unit but could no longer afford to do so after the state cut monthly funding from $133,000 to $90,000.

Zoom out: A few other inpatient options exist in NWA, including Vantage Point Behavioral Health Hospital and Springwoods Behavioral Health in Fayetteville.

  • Northwest Health's 77-bed adult behavioral health unit at its Springdale hospital "consistently maintains high occupancy due to the demand for mental health services," spokesperson Christina Bull told Axios in an email.

The intrigue: The state could expand access to mental health care by easing regulations on licensed counselors, who are required to work 3,000 hours under someone else before they bill most insurance, Lackey said.

  • The state also needs more emergency rooms specifically designed for psychiatric patients, noting that hospitals have to pull staff to observe psychiatric patients in ERs and ambulances have to do nonemergency transports to get them to mental health facilities, he said.
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