ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota hospitals are about to get help with an often-overlooked symptom of the pandemic, children suffering from severe mental health issues, stuck for days or weeks in emergency departments.
Minnesota's bipartisan, legislative COVID-19 Response Commission has approved a request by Governor Tim Walz, directing $2.86M in federal American Rescue Plan funding to expand access to - and coordination with - psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (MN DHS), there has been a 30% increase in children arriving at emergency departments with mental health issues.
"Hospitals tell us they simply don't have room," said Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, assistant commissioner for the MN DHS Community Supports Administration. "You have children in numbers that they've never seen before, showing up to the emergency departments. And then hospitals are unable to transition these children into other settings because those settings also have reduced capacity."
Matemba-Mutasa says she saw that struggle first-hand during a pilot program with M Health Fairview in November. DHS tried to help the hospital system place 20 children who no longer needed hospital level of care, but could not be discharged.
"The goal was really, we thought, to transition those children out of the hospital with the help of DHS, within a week," Matemba-Mutasa said. "What ended up happening was, within a two-week time frame, we were able to transition four kids, which was really disappointing to us. We also observed that the moment we transitioned one kid, there were two more kids waiting for that same bed."
Dr. Marc Gorelick is CEO of Children's Minnesota, which is ground zero for the crisis.
"Clearly there is more need than there is supply right now," Dr. Gorelick said. "Just to put it in human terms, we're seeing about 1,000 kids this year - that's three kids every single day - these are children as young as five or six years old, coming to our emergency department in need of truly intensive mental health treatment."
I was volunteering in our emergency department the other day - helping out because we have some staffing shortages - and seeing these kids waiting... they've come to the right place, we know what they need, but they're waiting for us to find these resources for them. It's an incredibly stressful situation for a child and a family to be in."
To address that, some of the $2.86M will go towards creating two new jobs at DHS, which are dedicated to helping hospitals find psychiatric residential treatment facilities to place children in. But most of the money - $2.5M - will go to the facilities themselves.
"Residential treatment facilities will use it to pay retention bonuses, they'll be able to pay higher salaries, they'll be able to really utilize some of that money towards building up their staffing because of the shortage," Matemba-Mutasa said.
And because that will likely take time, Children's Minnesota also plans to add it's own 22 bed in-patient mental health unit next year.
"Our Black, our indigenous and our LGBTQ youth are at higher risk, two to three times higher risk, of mental health crisis or suicide," Dr. Gorelick said. "We also have particularly few facilities to serve those youngest kids that we're starting to see more and more of.
"This could be one of the legacies of the COVID pandemic that I think we're going to be dealing with for a long time. I'm glad we're getting a start on it and we're happy to see others stepping forward as well."
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