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Western North Dakota, a mental health care desert, could get 20 psychiatric beds

The new beds would help to fill a void of inpatient psychiatric treatment beds in western North Dakota. There are no such beds west of Minot or Bismarck.

CHI St. Alexius medical center in Dickinson, N.D., earlier in 2017. Grady McGregor / Forum News Service
CHI St. Alexius medical center in Dickinson, North Dakota, seen in 2017.
Grady McGregor / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — CHI/CommonSpirit Health is drafting plans for 20 inpatient psychiatric treatment beds, split between 10 in Dickinson and 10 in Williston, to address the decades-long need for mental health beds in western North Dakota.

The plans were briefly presented Tuesday, April 5, to the North Dakota Legislature’s interim Acute Psychiatric Needs Committee, whose members welcomed the announcement.

The plan proposes 10 new psychiatric inpatient beds by building an addition to CHI St. Alexius Health in Dickinson and 10 new psychiatric inpatient beds by renovating space at CHI St. Alexius Health in Williston.

The cities of Dickinson and Williston both currently have zero psychiatric inpatient beds, a fact that underscores the region's lack of mental health care.

“We really feel the two sites will be appropriate to meet the current demands as well as future needs,” said Robin Conyers, CHI vice president for behavioral health.

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CHI will seek $9 million in financial support for the hospital addition in Dickinson and $5 million in support for renovation of its Williston hospital to add the new psychiatric treatment beds, she said.

The initiative also will require funding for staffing, scholarships and ongoing recruitment and retention programs to address the chronic shortage of mental health professionals in western North Dakota, Conyers said.

The inpatient population that the two units would serve would include a heavy mix of Medicaid and uninsured patients, she said.

CHI is finalizing drawings for the two projects, which Conyers estimated would take 12 to 18 months to complete once financing is in place.

“It’s not our intent to duplicate services,” she said. CHI’s forecast predicts demand for the services will increase 7% over the next 10 years.

CHI St. Alexius Health Williston.jpg
CHI St. Alexius Health medical center in Williston, North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of CHI

CommonSpirit Health is a health care partnership involving Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health.

The plans were welcomed by members of the committee, who are studying how to fill gaps in mental health services around the state. The lack of services in western North Dakota has been an area of focus.

“This is really exciting to see,” said Sen. Kathy Hogan, D-Fargo.

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Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, asked about funding sources for the two units.

“We’ve talked about such plans probably for a couple of decades in Williston and Dickinson,” he said. “What is your plan for getting the money to do this?”

Among other sources, CHI will be looking for local philanthropic support, Conyers said, adding that support would be sought not only for “brick-and-mortar” construction, but also for ongoing services.

“We are very interested in seeing this come to fruition,” said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, chairman of the interim committee.

In addition to the State Hospital in Jamestown, inpatient psychiatric services are concentrated in North Dakota’s urban medical centers, including those in Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and Bismarck.

Tim Blasl, president of the North Dakota Hospital Association, said that, to his knowledge, there are no psychiatrists in the state west of Minot or Bismarck.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services contracts with private hospitals in Minot, Grand Forks, Fargo and Bismarck for mental health services.

Payments in 2020 totaled more than $2.6 million to serve 1,221 persons over 4,997 hospital days. Payments in 2021 totaled more than $3.5 million to serve 1,271 persons over 6,534 hospital days, according to state figures presented to the committee.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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