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Providence begins construction of $11 million crisis care stabilization facility in Anchorage

Anchorage Daily News - 9/4/2023

Sep. 4—Providence Alaska broke ground last week on a new facility that as early as next year will offer walk-in care to Alaskans experiencing behavioral health and substance disorder-related emergencies.

The $11 million facility — which has received funding from the Municipality of Anchorage, the state health department and the Alaska Mental Health Trust, among others — aims to address what its funders describe as a critical need in Anchorage and statewide for prompt and accessible behavioral health care for Alaskans in crisis.

Alaska has long experienced a dearth of mental health treatment options. Crisis care outside of costly emergency departments that can act as a kind of intervention before requiring higher-level care is a particular need, health care providers and administrators say.

"It allows a really rapid response time," Providence's clinical manager, Lauren Anderson, said Wednesday.

That can look like getting quick access to a therapist or psychiatrist, she said, which is currently hard to get in Anchorage given long waitlists and few providers.

The project also aims to lessen the burden on the city's emergency departments, which are often the only place people experiencing behavioral health or substance abuse crises are able to go in the state, and is not always the best place for them to get the help they need, providers say.

"We need that lower level of care, where somebody can walk in, and get the care that they need right away, and then be very quickly reintroduced to the community once those needs are met," said Anchorage Assembly member Daniel Volland, who co-chairs the Assembly's health policy committee.

The Assembly recently allocated $1 million in funds from the city's alcohol tax to help pay for the center. Construction of the facility is being entirely paid for with public and private funds, while Providence will provide the staffing and operations once it opens, according to Providence spokesman Mikal Canfield.

The new facility, which is expected to open in mid-2024, will offer what Anderson describes as a "crisis stabilization space" with lots of windows and 12 to 14 chairs in a large room, where patients will receive initial care, assessment and triage.

[Alaska Regional wants to build a free-standing emergency department in South Anchorage. Some local ER doctors are adamantly opposed.]

That more informal setting with chairs instead of beds — and lots of natural light — can be more soothing than a hospital environment for people experiencing a mental health emergency, she said.

The center will also include a 12-bed residential unit that's designed for adult patients who need a longer stay, anywhere from four to seven days, Anderson said.

The cost for care will be similar to that of other Providence clinics, though Anderson said the goal was to reduce the need for more costly emergency department visits.

Unlike Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Alaska's state-operated psychiatric hospital, the new center will be open to walk-ins and care for people who may not require hospitalization, said Katie Baldwin-Johnson, chief operating officer of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which contributed $1.9 million toward the start-up costs of the new facility.

"Really anyone that needs help, or is experiencing a mental health emergency, can go there and seek it," Baldwin-Johnson said.

One population that could benefit from the new center is a small but visible subset of Anchorage residents experiencing homelessness alongside more serious mental health or substance disorders, said Owen Hutchinson, director of external relations with the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness.

Hutchinson said that a top concern that came out a survey the coalition did this spring of more than 90 people experiencing homeless in Anchorage was about mental health crises occurring in shelters, and contributing to others staying there feeling disrupted or unsafe.

"I think it's difficult for homeless service providers who are not trained behavioral health clinicians to be responsible for addressing that community need, and it takes a lot of resources away from the people who are there temporarily to help them on their pathway to housing," he said.

Similar facilities by Southcentral Foundation and Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau are also in planning stages, which reflects a broader shift in the state toward improving the kind of care Alaskans have access to, Baldwin-Johnson said.

These centers are part of a broader "crisis now" model that's being broadly implemented in many states, which includes 988, a national helpline for mental health crises, and mobile crisis teams, which pair mental health clinicians with paramedics to respond to emergencies.

"We want to improve how our system responds to people in crisis, and we know the needs are not being met within the existing mechanisms," she said.


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