A planned behavioral health facility for children has expanded both in scope and cost — going from $50 million to $89 million — and shifted locations to the campus of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in central Omaha.
The center will be operated by Children’s. Services will include 38 inpatient hospital beds, a pediatric mental health urgent care center, a first-in-the-region behavioral health emergency assessment center, an expanded partial hospitalization program and a pediatric primary care clinic with outpatient mental health services.
Plans for the facility have evolved since a nonprofit group led by Omaha philanthropist Ken Stinson last spring announced a plan to build a $50 million inpatient behavioral health facility for children on the campus of Immanuel Medical Center in north-central Omaha.
The plan emerged after the group, the Mental Health Innovation Foundation, convened a steering committee in summer 2021 that included officials from Immanuel, Children’s, Boys Town, Creighton University and other organizations, to address growing mental health challenges for children and teens.
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Stinson said the location shifted after Children’s began clearing property west of 84th and Dodge Streets that once had been home to Nebraska Methodist College and before that, a motel. Children’s purchased the property in 2018, and Children’s considers the entire area, including buildings that formerly housed HDR, as its campus.
The site provided the opportunity for a more centrally located facility near a pediatric hospital and medical center. “To have the new mental health facility right on the same campus, the same place, under the same auspices, just made so much sense,” Stinson said.
Officials with CHI Health, which operates Immanuel, were disappointed, he said, given the organization’s long history in behavioral health care. “But they also saw this valuable combination, this co-location, this continuum of care, as really a much improved situation.”
The 103,500-square-foot facility will be situated on 7 acres, complete with green space and parking, and be called the Behavioral Health & Wellness Center at Children’s. It’s slated to open in spring or summer 2025.
Chanda Chacón, Children’s president and CEO, said some children go back and forth between medical facilities and psychiatric or behavioral health centers. “The ability to have that … continuum of care is really a valuable win for the community,” she said.
Co-locating various mental health services also provides better care for kids, she said. If a child visiting the urgent care can’t go home, the center will offer an inpatient bed. The center will have double the 18 beds currently available for children and adolescents at Immanuel.
Chacón said Children’s will collaborate with other mental health care providers in the area, as the Stinson-led foundation envisioned, to create a network that extends into the community.
“Mental health for kids is not something we want to be competitive on,” she said. “We want to as a community do the right thing for kids. So every facility that has been engaged in this space has been at the table as partners … All of us have to be at the table, to say what part are we all going to play. This is way too big of a problem for any one organization to say, ‘We can solve this ourselves.’”
In addition to working on planning and design, the foundation is raising money for the center. Of the $89 million, $16 million is expected from the $40 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds the Nebraska Legislature designated this spring for mental health projects in the state. Children’s is contributing $15 million from its reserves.
The $16 million is comprised of the $10 million designated for the project initially and $6 million of the $10 million that was designated for Children’s to establish pediatric mental health urgent care centers. The other $4 million, Chacón said, will go for a pediatric mental health urgent care in central Nebraska.
The remaining money will come from donors, Stinson said. The foundation is more than two-thirds of the way to its total goal of $89 million.
Stinson said donors know there’s a need for such a facility in the community without him having to explain.
“They know because they’ve read about it, they know because so many of us have mental health issues in our families or families we’re close with, and they all have said, ‘You don’t have to take any time explaining why you need it,’” he said. “’Tell me what you’re going to be doing here.’”
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, one in five children was experiencing a mental illness, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has led to increased mental health challenges and suicide risk among children.
Nationwide, emergency room visits related to mental health are up 24% among children ages 5 to 11 and 31% among those 12 to 17, according to the Children’s Hospital Association. Suicide now is the second-leading cause of death for youths, according to the CDC and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and Nebraska exceeds national trends for suicide deaths in adolescents ages 15 to 19.
The need, Chacón said, is an important reason why Children’s is investing in the project. “It is one of the most significant child and adolescent health issues we’re seeing in our space right now,” she said. “So it’s important as the community is investing, we’re also investing as an organization into one of the highest needs that we see.”
In addition to the inpatient beds, Stinson said, two other components that make the facility a more comprehensive center are the assessment center and the partial hospitalization program. Parents of children who need therapy but don’t require hospitalization can drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. While there, the children will receive a combination of therapy and education.
The foundation has hired Kiewit Building Group Inc. to serve as contractor and HDR to design the facility. Groundbreaking is planned for late spring or early summer.
The foundation has been working with educators in the area who are focusing on ways to expand their output of mental health care workers at various levels.
The center, Chacón said, also will serve as a hub to help extend care across the state. Children’s received $1.8 million from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year for telehealth technology to support pediatric mental health initiatives.
“If you can stay close to your home,” she said, “that’s where we want you to stay.”