Mental health service needs were climbing prior to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing a lot more people, a lot more commitments, and people coming through the hospitals,” said Mary Lamprecht, a project manager in the county’s Adult and Family Services. ”We’re just expecting this to escalate.”

The increased need has the county seeking $581,000 in state funding for a two-year effort aimed at reducing hospital days for local residents suffering from mental illness or addiction.

However, Olmsted County Deputy Administrator Paul Fleissner said the grant, if approved, would only be a Band-aid or bridge to needed services.

“The problem is we have never had a full continuum in this state for behavioral health services, and we are trying to piece it together,” he said.

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The grant proposal goes hand-in-hand with work on the planned Southeast Regional Crisis Center, as well as a 30-unit supportive housing project planned on county land near Mayowood Road in southwest Rochester.

“We would be in such a better place if the crisis center was here this spring rather than next spring,” Fleissner said, noting the facility is being designed for adults and young people needing temporary support.

He said the center is likely to help prevent Community Behavioral Health Hospital stays, which can cost the county $1,300 to $1,800 a day once a patient is stabilized.

Being stable enough for release, however, doesn’t mean patients are ready, Lamprecht said.

“There are some people that stay longer because placement is harder to find,” she said, indicating the county needs to ensure they will be in a stable environment moving forward.

“One of our challenges in getting people or keeping people out of these facilities is because they don’t have housing,” Fleissner said, pointing to the expected benefit of the planned supportive housing for people facing mental illness and homelessness.

The planned housing project, which will be built by Center City Housing of Duluth, is slated to begin this year with preliminary site work funded by the county’s Housing and Human Services levy. Once Center City finalizes financing with Minnesota Housing, the property will be transferred to the nonprofit, which will reimburse the county for related costs.

As the county begins piecing together support, Fleissner and Lamprecht said the related expenses come with anticipated future savings.

Lamprecht said the state grant is expected to result in a decrease in the number of people needing to be readmitted into behavioral health hospitals.

“Reducing a single rehospitalization would save at least $30,000,” she said, pointing out that more than 30 people needed multiple hospitalizations in recent years.

The county paid $280,000 for local residents’ stays at Community Behavioral Health Hospitals last year, and Lamprecht said forecasts indicate the cost could climb to $446,00 this year and $496,000 in 2021, if a new approach isn’t considered.

The state grant application seeks to build on the county’s earlier work, which cut the costs for hospitalizations at the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center by more than half in 2018.

The proposed two-year effort would fund an additional social worker dedicated to helping people find services upon release from a behavioral health hospital, as well as peer support specialists through NAMI Southeast Minnesota and Recovery is Happening to provide added community connections.

“They have lived the experience of mental illness, and they have also lived the experience of substance use disorder,” Lamprecht said of the specialists.

Fleissner said all the work being done on new projects may be too late to stem concerns emerging amid increased unemployment, domestic violence reports and other COVID-related pressures, but it will put the county in a better position to address increased future needs.

“There’s some bubbling going on, and you don’t know how big it will get, because we don’t know how long this will last,” he said of emerging issues.