Dayton: MN mental health centers need security upgrades now

Minnesota Security Hospital
The governor wants $177 million to improve buildings and boost staffing levels at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, pictured, and the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center.
Courtesy Department of Human Services

Gov. Mark Dayton says urgent upgrades are needed at two state-run mental health facilities, and he's calling on lawmakers to come through this session with the necessary funding.

Dayton wants $177 million to improve buildings and boost staffing levels at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Employees from both facilities say the money is needed to make the places they work safe.

"We're walking around wounded and we feel like punching bags," Jackie Spanjers, a nurse at the Anoka center, told reporters Wednesday as she stood alongside Dayton to push for the spending.

Spanjers has worked at the Anoka treatment center for 20 years. She said it's been dangerous to work there since 2013, when a change in state law required the psychiatric hospital to admit county jail inmates along with other mentally ill patients.

She noted there were 55 injuries in Anoka last year and said she's been injured too.

"Getting pounded in the face or head leaves you with serious injuries, some that can end your career," she said. "Concussions, headaches, memory loss, open wounds, broken bones and eye injuries are common."

Anoka needs security improvements and more front-line staff to keep both workers and patients safe, added Spanjers, who also serves as the local union president. The facility is also facing a potential loss of federal funds.

Patients have also assaulted staff at the state security hospital in St. Peter, and employees there shared similar concerns at Wednesday's news conference.

Nurse Anne Mehltretter said she's seen "countless assaults" at the facility and that there aren't enough nurses to take care of what she described as "very complex" patients.

"Nurses come in knowing that they're going to work multiple overtime shifts a week, and that's just kind of become status quo," she said. "It's very difficult."

Dayton said Anoka and St. Peter have suffered from persistent neglect and underfunding. He wants the Legislature to back $125 million in capital improvements and $52.3 million in spending increases aimed at the two facilities.

Dayton said the problems can no longer be ignored.

"This is not a matter of choice," he said. "This is a matter of responsibility that we have, I share with the Legislature, to the staff, a very dedicated staff at both facilities who endure far more than they should because of these deficiencies. And the patients there, who are Minnesotans, who are entitled to a quality of care that right now cannot always be provided to the standards we have."

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, commended Dayton for his funding push. Sheran, whose district includes St. Peter, also commended the workers for a years-long campaign to raise awareness about the increasing dangers they face.

"They were a drumbeat over a long period of time, simply refusing to let the Legislature have a deaf ear to what was happening in this part of our mental health system," said Sheran, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee.

Dayton's proposal faces a tough road in the Minnesota House, where majority Republicans are reluctant to take on additional state spending in a non-budget year. They also want a significantly smaller bonding bill than the one Dayton has proposed.

House Capital Investment Committee Chair Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said worker safety at state facilities should be a high priority but added that he's not yet convinced the bonding bill is the key to addressing those issues.

"I'm not sure it's directly related to the bonding proposals," he said. "There is some relationship. But I think some of those issues with worker safety could be dealt with in spite of what we do in bonding."

Torkelson said work continues on the House bonding bill proposal, but he did not specify when it will be released.

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