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Wednesday's unveiling of PrairieCare's expanded psychiatric hospital for children in Brooklyn Park revealed a gleaming new wing of brightly colored rooms, activity areas and 30 empty beds.

In about a month, every one of those beds is expected to be full.

PrairieCare leaders on Wednesday celebrated the construction in just one year of the wing, designed to address Minnesota's long-term need for more inpatient psychiatric beds but also the short-term need each fall.

"With youth inpatient psychiatric services, it's highly seasonal," said Todd Archbold PrairieCare's chief executive. "Our capacity goes from like 98 percent in the school year down to 50 percent in the summer ... We probably will see our volumes double from the beginning of September to the end of this month."

PrairieCare's expansion is the second to increase pediatric inpatient mental health capacity in the Twin Cities over the past year, following the addition of a new unit at Children's Minnesota in St. Paul. Most estimates suggest that Minnesota still needs more.

The chronic bed shortage is reflected in the number of patients boarding in hospital emergency rooms across Minnesota. Children spent an extra 1,200 days in Minnesota ERs in the first five months of 2023, waiting for space to open in filled psychiatric facilities, according to data from the state Department of Human Services.

Lawmakers supported PrairieCare's expansion two years ago by exempting the project from Minnesota's hospital construction moratorium. They also suspended that moratorium until 2027 for any hospitals looking to further expand inpatient psychiatric capacity.

Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, attended Wednesday's grand opening while mindful of a cousin who couldn't get access to inpatient psychiatric care when she needed it.

"She was loved but she was also tired and she died from suicide," Dziedzic said. "Inpatient care could have helped her. That's why the addition of these 30 new beds ... is such a big deal. It will give families hope but it also will save lives."

Beyond inpatient beds, the state needs more options for children with substance abuse and behavioral or developmental problems, said Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.

Children with behavior problems often don't qualify for psychiatric inpatient treatment and end up warehoused for weeks or even months in emergency departments. The University of Minnesota Medical Center at one point last year converted an ambulance bay into makeshift space for children, while Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia was stuck with an often-violent foster child for months.

Showing that they matter

PrairieCare had a turbulent start when it entered the Twin Cities market in 2008, operating as Prairie-St. John's and trying to build a psychiatric hospital in Woodbury that state regulators rebuffed.

The for-profit company pivoted to become one of the Twin Cities' largest providers of outpatient mental health care before building a 20-bed pediatric hospital in Maple Grove. It was replaced in 2015 by the Brooklyn Park facility off Hwy. 610, with a capacity now of 101 beds.

Archbold said the latest expansion is about more than sheer numbers. The new wing includes two new units designed to serve adolescents but also teens who have especially lacked treatment options.

"We saw the number of young adults, 17 and 18 years old, needing inpatient treatment triple since winter of last year," he said.

PrairieCare was acquired last year by Newport Healthcare, which provides step-down residential treatment in St. Cloud, Monticello and Buffalo and outpatient care in Minneapolis. The Nashville company operates in multiple states but hasn't owned a psychiatric hospital before.

The hope is that the operation of a full spectrum of pediatric mental health services in Minnesota will offer lessons and efficiencies that can be repeated in other states, said Joe Procopio, Newport's chief executive.

"We could take that model and cure a lot of pain in a lot of communities," Archbold said.

Sue Abderholden of NAMI Minnesota said challenges remain, including a staffing shortage that will make it difficult to further increase psychiatric bed capacity.

She commended PrairieCare for offering an inviting therapeutic space for patients. Most inpatient psychiatric units in Minnesota are "ugly," she said, but the new unit features bright colors, a "zen room" for relaxing, and indoor and outdoor basketball hoops.

"What that says to them is, you matter," she said. "And when you feel like you matter, you have hope."