Brainerd medical center no longer admitting civilly committed patients

Citing a lack of beds and staffing concerns, a central Minnesota hospital says it's no longer accepting people committed by courts for psychiatric care.

St. Joseph's Medical Center in Brainerd will admit to its 16-bed behavioral health center only those patients who are seeking treatment voluntarily.

Dr. Peter Henry, chief medical officer of Essentia Health, which runs the hospital, said St. Joseph's mental health unit wasn't set up to handle civilly committed patients.

"We recognize for the safety of the patients that were there voluntarily as well as safety of our staff, that this facility was never designed to take and house involuntarily patients who have propensity to be violent against either other patients, the community or the staff," Henry said.

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Last year 63 percent of the 451 people admitted to the Grace unit were there involuntarily, Henry said. That left little room for those in the Brainerd area seeking help for depression, suicidal ideation and other psychiatric illnesses.

Henry also said the high number of involuntary psychiatric patients has made it hard to attract and retain staff.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said Essentia's move risks the well-being of people with serious psychiatric disorders.

"That means people from their community who have a level of seriousness in terms of their mental illness and their symptoms aren't going to be able to be served in their home community," Abderholden said.

Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper fears St. Joseph's may set a precedent for other private hospitals.

"What obligation do you have as one of the state's largest health systems to continue to serve the people of our state in a comprehensive way? Particularly in greater Minnesota, where people really rely on the Essentias of the world to serve all of the needs of the people in that community," Piper said.

"When that system's compressed, unfortunately many of those people end up in our local jails, and that is not the place for someone who suffers from mental illness to sit and wait for something to open up," Stanek said.

A 2013 state law is supposed to stop the people with mental illness from languishing behind bars, limiting their time in jail to 48 hours after a judge signs a commitment order. After that, the person arrested must to go to one of the state's psychiatric hospitals or treatment facilities. Two of those, Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center or the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter have had staff injured by patients.

Reporter Mark Zdechlik contributed to this story.