Austin State Hospital to undergo massive renovation

Austin State Hospital (ASH)
Austin State Hospital (ASH) (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — During 2017’s legislative session, realizing the need to improve the state’s mental health needs, Texas lawmakers decided to approve $300 million in funds to make the necessary changes.

On Monday, the Health and Human Services Commission announced the first round of funding that will be used to improve the state’s inpatient psychiatric care system. The initial $47.7 million will allow for the redesign of the Austin State Hospital at a cost of $15.5 million. Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin has been chosen to lead the redesign that will transform the hospital to the “cornerstone for an improved system of collaborative, community-focused care that helps people across Central Texas.”

A steering committe will also work to establish a center for brain health on the Austin State Hospital campus. The committee, which includes State Sen. Kirk Watson, will deliver a master plan for the campus prior to the next legislative session in 2019.

The committee is made up of stakeholder groups across the region, including:

The Austin State Hospital’s service area covers 33 counties for adults and 55 counties for children.

“This unprecedented collaboration will strengthen and improve the mental health care and overall well-being for Central Texans,” said David Evans, chief executive office at Integral Care. “We’ve harnessed our collective expertise to build a larger, more innovative workforce, increase access to effective treatments and support ongoing recovery. Integral Care’s vision is healthy living for everyone, and this effort brings us many steps closer to reaching that vision.”

Although it’s not clear what the new facility will look like, where it will be located, or what will come of the current buildings at the property, partners involved in the redesign project say it could have a national impact.

“Beyond creating a ground-breaking facility in Austin, the master plan will look for ways to create an innovative continuum of inpatient, outpatient, residential and preventative services that will stretch across the dozens of Texas counties that feed into the Austin State Hospital,” said Dr. Stephen Strakowski, chair of the Dell Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry.

“We want to use this once-in-a-generation opportunity to change what it means to have a brain health campus at the heart of a multidisciplinary, community-focused, modern system that serves all people impacted by mental health and substance abuse,” he said.

Dr. Strakowski says the approach is designed to shift the need for and reduce the reliance on expensive and often less-effective facilities where patients receive mental health care, including emergency rooms, hospitals and even local jails.

“One of my goals here is to really get people who’ve been arrested with mental illness put in the place that fits their level of care they need, not the charge they have. Again, if someone’s really dangerous, yes, we want to protect society, but most of this stuff’s not that,” said Dr. Strakowski.

“You want to respect and honor the law, but we also have to recognize when psychiatric conditions or brain health issues affect how the law was broken or interpreted — that we manage that, partly to prevent people from just recycling back and forth through the system, and partly to do what’s truly the humane and right thing to do.”

The rest of the initial $47.7 million will be spent to expand capacity at state hospitals in Kerrville and San Antonio, which will also see a new hospital. It will also pay for the cost of planning and design of a new hospital campus in Houston, as well as the design for two new 100-bed units at Rusk State Hospital.

Making sure there are enough beds for the state’s mental health patients has been an ongoing struggle.

“There aren’t enough beds available for everyone who needs treatment,” said Greg Hansch, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, in May. “If a person needs a bed, they aren’t particularly likely of getting one — especially if they’re civilly committed. Most of the beds now in our state hospital system are taken up by people who are referred through the criminal justice system.”

Remaining funds will be requested and distributed throughout the course of the biennium.

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