Denver Health breaks ground on a new adolescent psych unit

Denver Health broke ground this week on a four-story building that by late next year will be home to an adolescent psychiatric facility. Although the psych ward's new digs won't be a whole lot bigger, Denver Health officials say they will be a lot better.

In terms of hard numbers, the facility's bed count will increase from the current 12 in the main hospital building to 16. But given the loss late last year of 34 beds at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Fort Logan, will this be enough to close the gap?

To Dr. Robert House, DH's director of mental health services, the new facility's main allure is functionality. "What it will make possible is to do better link services," says House. For example, adolescent psychiatry comprises both inpatient and outpatient care, as well as a substance abuse clinic. Right now, those three services are all over the place -- the substance abuse clinic is several blocks away from the hospital's main campus. "With the new facility, instead of walking these kids down the street, we'll be able to just walk them down the hall," he points out.

Denver Health CFO Peg Burnette says the hospital had gotten funding to renovate the floor where the psych unit is currently located, which led to the push for a new facility. That process started about a year ago, and since then the hospital has been able to secure some stimulus money--earmarked for education, because it's "a teaching hospital" -- in addition to some $29 million-worth of low-interest bonds.

"Currently our adolescent psych unity is relatively small and not very functional," Burnette says, adding that while the unit has 12 beds, sometimes no more than nine can be filled at a given time, as most are doubled up in rooms and males and females can't be housed together.

House thinks the new unit will have "a reasonable number of beds." The bigger concern, he says, is outpatient services.

"It can be very hard to discharge patients and refer them to outpatient services," he says, and while the new location will increase the adolescent unit's outpatient capabilities, the need is great. "Many of the patients we see are on Medicaid, and they're the primary responsibility of the Mental Health Center of Denver."

An that organization, he notes, suffers from a problem common to all mental health providers: "They're underfunded."