Bartlett Regional continues effort to build a youth psychiatric treatment center in Juneau

When residential psychiatric treatment services for youth aren’t available in the state, children are sent out of Alaska. But Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau is trying to change that by building a treatment center in the state’s capital.

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Bartlett Regional Hospital. (Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO - Juneau)
Bartlett Regional Hospital. (Photo by Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau)

According to reports earlier this month, about 120 children have been sent out of state for high-level psychiatric treatment. In 2004, the number of children sent out of state was six times that. That number has dwindled largely due to a statewide initiative that ended two years ago.

Bartlett Regional Hospital began planning to a build treatment center in Juneau in 2004. Now, things have changed.

“A lot of the discussion was more about an acute care level of service,” said Mark Johnson, one of the hospital’s board members. “And so this kind of changes the service to a different level, and I think it takes a bit of time for that discussion to take place in the community.”

That different level of service is a residential psychiatric treatment center, or RPTC, which has a longer treatment model and focuses on children who’ve experienced severe trauma and suffer from multiple mental illnesses.

“There is a need, there are kids who need this level of service, it is not available in this region right now,” he said. “There’s not enough available in this state right now, and when the kids have to be sent somewhere else it’s very challenging for the families of those kids.”

Although RPTC services are offered around the state, there is none in Southeast. Bartlett hopes to change that with a 28-bed facility.

Sally Schneider is the hospital’s chief behavioral health officer and oversees the project, which is still in the feasibility stage.

“We started looking at what is called a residential psychiatric center that allows children a longer spectrum of care, to be able to better their development needs,” she said.

But running these services is expensive, and some other organizations in Alaska have tried to provide these services, then down-sized or shut down. According to the state Department of Health, the cost of providing these services has increased by 25 percent in the past 11 years, while reimbursement rates from the state have barely changed.

Brita Bishop is a program manager with the state’s Division of Behavioral Health and helped coordinate the Bring Back the Kids Initiative, which helped reduce the number of kids being sent out of state.

“In terms of what we’re seeing in kids who are going out of state, what we’re seeing at this point is that it’s not the kinds of children and youth that are easily served in other community programs,” Bishop said.“And so if we are going to develop additional services in Alaska, one of the things I’m concerned with is that we develop the services we actually need.”

An example, Bishop said, is a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, who also suffers from intellectual disabilities and has other behavioral needs. They’d seek out-of-state services because the child’s needs are so specific.

Bartlett officials will present an update to the Juneau Assembly in September. Aside from finding potential land, they’re asking if providing this type of care in Juneau makes sense financially.