Brainerd hospital turning away patients with serious mental illnesses, citing state bottlenecks

November 1, 2017 GMT

In a decision that has dismayed mental health advocates, Essentia Health has begun turning away patients with severe psychiatric problems at its Brainerd hospital amid concerns that such patients were overburdening the facility.

The Duluth-based health care system said St. Josephs Medical Center in Brainerd in September stopped admitting patients who are held against their will under a court order, known as civil commitment. Instead, the hospitals 16-bed mental health unit now accepts only patients who voluntarily accept treatment who tend to have less-serious mental health problems than those who are civilly committed.


Executives at St. Josephs said the shift will free up more beds and make the psychiatric unit safer for patients and staff.

Like many private hospitals across the state, St. Josephs has struggled to accommodate a surge in court-committed patients with serious and persistent psychiatric problems. Many of them were languishing for weeks on the hospitals psychiatric unit as they awaited admission to crowded state facilities, occupying beds that could be used by people with less-serious mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, officials said.

There became a huge bottleneck in the state system and we had to respond, said Adam Rees, president of St. Josephs Medical Center and surrounding clinics.

Patients who were civilly committed by the courts were staying an average of 40 days at St. Josephs mental health unit, nearly eight times longer than patients who voluntarily sought treatment, officials said. By accepting only voluntary patients, the hospital will be able to treat an additional 200 or more patients a year, including more patients from the Brainerd Lakes area, hospital executives said.

However, the move has alarmed mental health advocates and some psychiatrists, who raised concerns that excluding court-committed patients could set a dangerous precedent. If other private hospitals follow St. Josephs lead, hundreds of Minnesotans with complex psychiatric disorders would have nowhere to go during a mental health crisis.

The move could also put more pressure on county jails that already treat thousands of inmates with mental illnesses each a year, though they are not properly equipped to do so, advocates warned.

These are real people. They arent chess pieces. And they dont just go away because you wont admit them, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota. So theyll end up in jail or traveling hundreds of miles to get care.

An estimated 5.4 percent of adults in Minnesota, or 220,000 people statewide, are diagnosed as having a serious mental illness that impairs their daily ability to function, according to a report last year by mental health task force appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton. A small subgroup, about 4,000 people, are committed by the courts as mentally ill each year.

Chris Serres 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres