April 23, 2014

Administrators’ pitch: $211 million from bonds to improve Fulton State Mental Hospital

Legislators in the state House and Senate and Governor Jay Nixon have all mentioned Fulton State Mental Hospital in listing priorities for proceeds from the proposed issuance of bonds. Now its administrators have explained the Department of Mental Health’s plan for the Hospital to a House budget subcommittee.

The Department of Mental Health proposal calls for the replacement of the Biggs Maximum Security Forensic Center.

The Department of Mental Health proposal calls for the replacement of the Biggs Maximum Security Forensic Center.

The House Appropriations Committee on Health, Mental Health and Social Services toured the Hospital on Thursday. During the tour its members were told the $211 million dollar plan would replace some of the buildings with more modern facilities, keep the state from having to build a new sexual offender treatment facility at Farmington and save the state between $78 million and $85 million in the next decade and $3.2 million annually.

Behavioral Health Division Director Mark Stringer says it would feature the replacement of the 186 bed, maximum security Biggs Forensic Center.

“The proposal is for a new high-security facility here at Fulton State Hospital to be part of the bond strategy.”

The plan includes demolition of the Biggs facility and other, vacant buildings on the Fulton campus. A new 300-bed maximum-security building would go on the site of the current dietary center, and a new dietary center would be built.

Staff pointed out aging facilities in the dietary center that is using equipment that came off of WWII era ships.  Another door like this one can't be opened because the frame will collapse.

Staff pointed out aging facilities in the dietary center that is using equipment that came off of WWII era ships. Another door like this one can’t be opened because the frame will collapse.

It also calls for moving patients out of the intermediate-security Guhleman Forensic Center into the new building. The Guhleman facility would then be used to provide more space to treat a steadily growing number of patients in the Sex Offender Rehabilitation and Treatment Services program.

Administrators say the sex offender program gains 17 to 20 patients a year. Its current building is housing three patients to a room.

Stringer says, “We have to find a place to put those guys, and so if we are not able to vacate [Guhleman Forensic Center] then the state will have to construct what we estimate would be about a $77 million facility.”

The earliest portion of the Biggs facility was built in 1937. Stringer and other administrators and staff walked legislators through the center and pointed out what makes its design outdated and dangerous.

Stringer says an employee working at Biggs for 30 years, statistically, will be injured badly enough to require a trip to an emergency room six times.

“Some of those are life-altering changes from traumatic brain injury, permanent physical injuries … and so they are devastating.”

The Department says workers compensation injuries at the Hospital are more than double that of the Department of Corrections and more than four times state and private industry benchmarks. The cost of Workers Compensation claims at the Hospital have increased fourfold in the last seven years to more than $3.3 million.

Stringer says at least some of the danger is directly a result of the inadequacy of the facility.

Representatives Sue Allen, Tom Flanigan and Jeannie Riddle tour the Fulton State Mental Hospital.

Representatives Sue Allen, Tom Flanigan and Jeannie Riddle tour the Fulton State Mental Hospital.

He does not believe improvements at Fulton State Mental Hospital will happen absent a bond issuance to pay for it. When discussion of passing a bond package this year began building, Stringer says he was “ecstatic.”

“One of my dreams in this job would be to see the day when we actually had funding appropriated somehow or generated funding somehow to create a new high-security facility here.”

Even if the Department’s plan becomes part of a bonding proposal, Stringer knows voters would have the final say on that proposal.

He tells Missourians, “Even though we are in Fulton, Missouri, this facility serves people from all over the state … this is where people in … any county in Missouri will come if they simply can not be served anywhere else.” He adds, “We are also keeping this county and all other counties safe because of what we do here, so this is a great investment.”

See our earlier stories on bonding in the 2013 session.

To get the cost of the plan down from $320 million to $211 million, the Department worked to lower the population of Fulton State Mental Hospital between 2009 and 2011. Five short-term treatment wards and two emergency wards in St. Louis and Farmington were closed. Minimum and intermediate security patients were moved to those facilities in St. Louis and Farmington, taking the number of patients in Fulton from 451 patients to 330 today.

The Department says a new facility could save, annually, about $750,000 in energy costs and between $1 million and $1.5 million in staffing costs. It also says the current Hospital’s condition is jeopardizing about $40 million in federal money for Missouri from Medicare and Medicaid.

The Hospital’s administrators hope the $211 million plan will become part of a bonding proposal that would first have to be passed by the legislature before reaching voters.  A House Committee took its first testimony this week on the issue.  The Senate has yet to begin official work on creating its version.

The bills introduced in both chambers propose issuing $950 million in bonds and says no more than $250 million will be used for construction of state buildings, with $40 million of that required to go to parks and park facilities.