Why Mt. Pleasant?s MHI is so important

By State Rep. Dave Heaton

The Town Hall Meeting last weekend at the Heatilator Art Center was a great expression of the concerns of southeast Iowa of the closing of MHI?s in Clarinda and Mt Pleasant. About 150 people showed up to express their displeasure of Governor Terry Branstad?s decision to close the two MHI?s.

More than 30 speakers had the opportunity to express their concerns to legislators who were in attendance. They included local sheriffs, court supervisors, former MHI patients and staff, doctors, hospital directors, nursing students, former prison guards, and everyday citizens from across the state.

I wish Governor Branstad could have been there. He would have heard concerned citizens across southern Iowa, not speaking of lost jobs, but the impact closing the MHI?s would have on patients. It would create problems for emergency rooms, hospital staff, and law enforcement, creating a health crisis that would affect every being in Iowa.

The Iowa branch of the National Association for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has identified 60,000 Iowans as suffering from chronic mental illness. Iowa?s institutions and private hospitals provide 625 beds for those who need acute level of care. This places Iowa 48 in the country in the number of psych beds per capita; 4.9 beds per 100,000 residents. Experts believe 50 beds per 100,000 residents is the optimum.

Iowa?s acute care beds are currently operating at capacity. Iowans needing acute mental health care are being held in hospital emergency rooms from two to seven days, disrupting the ER operations and affecting the whole hospital. Finding an open psychiatric hospital bed in Iowa is a difficult task.

Mental health providers across the state have waiting lists for open beds. An employee of Cherokee MHI told me that they receive 15 calls a weekend and have no vacancy. The MHI at Mt. Pleasant, in the last seven months, has received 250 requests to place a patient there, but they have had to reject every request. I am sure the story is the same at our other MHI?s and private hospitals.

Henry County Sheriff Rich McNamee, spoke to the effect the shortage of beds has, not only on his operation, but also on the patient. Yesterday, two of his deputies delivered their patient six and a half hours away to a hospital in Sioux City for evaluation. Forty-eight hours later, two deputies will make the trip again to return the patient to Henry County to appear before the judge, who will study the evaluation and determine whether the patient should be returned for further treatment. The nearly 14 hour round trip could occur again when the patient is returned after treatment. The deputies could be called on again if there is no family to pick up the patient to return to the community. How many miles and time are involved in the transportation of the patient? It?s 332 miles one way. So, four trips would total 52 hours and a total distance of 2,656 miles. Ladies and gentlemen, it is 2,000 miles to Los Angeles.

It?s not just about the inconvenience to law enforcement - think about the patient. Emotionally unstable, insecure and in crisis, they will be handcuffed with their hands behind their back for the duration of the trip - a six and a half hour trip in this uncomfortable position. Imagine!!!

The governor says we can expand the use of beds at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. But on Saturday, representatives of UIHC said their beds are full. In fact, they have sent patients to Mt Pleasant MHI on a regular basis in years past and have had to wait two and three weeks for a bed to be open.

Dr. Francis Sanchez, a psychiatrist at Great River Medical Center in Burlington, said the lack of acute beds is a bigger problem than most people realize. He said GRMC has only eight acute-care beds to offer, and once Mt. Pleasant MHI closes, there will be only eight beds in all of Southeast Iowa. Every time a bed opens up at GRMC, it is filled within a few hours, either locally or through a transfer from a distant county. It is clear that reducing the number of acute care beds is not a good idea for Iowa.

Three years ago, we began the process of redesigning of Iowa?s mental health system. Counties were given the responsibility and flexibility to provide services in a community-based setting for those who suffered from mental health issues and intellectual disabilities. Counties formed regions and in pooling their resources have begun the job of providing those community-based services. Some regions are further ahead than others. Our Southeast Iowa Region has made great progress in moving forward.

The message I hear from counties and agencies is the concern that they have yet to complete their community-based services that would provide support for those fragile, chronically mentally ill. Twenty five percent of our beds at our MHI?s are occupied by individuals who, upon completing their treatment, have nowhere to go. Counties and regions are working to develop services to provide care for these patients outside the hospital. But they aren?t ready yet.

Ken Hyndman, the director of mental health services for Des Moines County, said the closure is too sudden to meet the needs of the people he serves. Sara Berndt, Henry County?s mental health director said removing the MHI from the system before having the community-based support services in place would be a disaster.

It is clear from Saturday?s meeting that the people of southeast Iowa understand the critical role Mt. Pleasant MHI plays in our state?s mental health system. But that?s not enough to keep it open.

We need to work together to let the rest of Iowa know this fact, and to inform them of how their communities will be adversely impacted by the closing of the Mount Pleasant MHI and the facility in Clarinda. In the upcoming weeks, I am going to talk about the services provided on the MHI campus and how they impact all of Iowa. And I will also discuss how you and I can work together to spread this message.

Dave Heaton, State Representative, State House, Des Moines, Iowa


Phone: 515-281-7327~Fax: 515-281-6958


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