Lawrence Memorial Hospital will remodel its emergency room and hire new ER workers to better treat patients with mental illness.
The decision, agreed to Wednesday by hospital trustees, was applauded by some who have criticized LMH for having inadequate services for the mentally ill. But one trustee said the plan to spend $150,000 remodeling the emergency room was a hasty reaction to public pressure.
"One of my concerns is that there is this intense pressure for us to do something," board member Lindy Eakin said. "I would rather that we slow down. I'm concerned we're in a mindset that we need to do more now, so let's do something."
Eakin voted against the expansion, which will add two rooms reserved for patients who need immediate treatment for mental health issues.
He also said he was concerned the new rooms would have to be rebuilt in the next three years as the emergency department is relocated as part of a planned $35 million hospital expansion.
The ER improvements are expected to be completed within three months. The plan also calls for the equivalent of four new full-time staff positions -- mainly nurses and managers -- to staff the service.
The hospital treats mental health patients in the emergency room who are in a crisis or are a danger to themselves or others. But the facility does not now have a special area devoted to the treatment.
The hospital was questioned after a Lawrence resident committed suicide in January after hospital officials said it would be all right for her to leave the emergency department. Brianna Mitchell left for her mother's home to await a transport service to a mental-health hospital outside the city.
Hospital officials said the suicide played a role in the plans for the new service.
"I think we can say what we're currently doing is exactly what we should be doing as a community hospital," said Gene Meyer, president and chief executive of LMH.
Kathy Mitchell, Brianna's mother, said Wednesday that the proposed system would have provided her daughter the safe space she needed to await the transport, which was delayed because of icy weather.
"It is a good first step, but it is not the final step," Mitchell said. "It can't be the final step."
Brianna Mitchell's case sparked a call from some community members for the hospital to reopen its inpatient mental health unit, which closed May 1 amid shortages of psychiatrists and concerns that the unit wasn't attracting an adequate number of patients.
David Johnson, chief executive of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said he thought the emergency room changes would result in a significant improvement in the community's mental health services.
"It will fill a gap in the system," Johnson said. "There is no doubt in my mind about that."
Johnson has been calling for the hospital to reopen its inpatient mental health unit. On Wednesday, he said the broad issue of inpatient mental health services still needed to be addressed, but he was uncertain whether the community should continue to pressure LMH to reopen its unit.
"I don't know the answer to that right now," Johnson said. "But it is fair to say that that this does not solve all the problems we face."
The new program -- technically called a crisis stabilization service -- will feature two rooms secluded from other emergency-room functions.
"Most of the (mental health) patients need a calming environment, and most of the time our emergency department is not a calming place," said Dana Hale, LMH interim vice president of nursing.
The rooms will be designed to accommodate patients for as long as 24 hours, although LMH officials expect the average stay to be less than half that time.
The service is expected to be a money-loser for the hospital. It is expected to serve about 400 patients with first-year losses totaling $400,000. LMH estimates it will lose about $1.5 million during its first five years.