OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers plan to invest over $50 million in federal coronavirus aid and state funds to help the University of Oklahoma health system build a new state-of-the-art pediatric mental health facility.

The $115.8 million behavioral health center will house 72 inpatient beds, and include a neurodevelopment and autism unit along with intensive outpatient treatment. It will also contain space for youth in state custody, space for families to stay with their children, a two-story gym, outdoor respite spaces, conference areas and family resources spaces.

Officials said state and federal funds, including $39.4 million earmarked by lawmakers Tuesday, will pay for about 58% of the pediatric behavioral health center, which is slated to open by the end of 2025. The University Hospitals Authority and Trust plans to contribute about $23 million, and the hospital system plans to raise about $26 million through other partnerships.

Lawmakers decided to prioritize allocating the American Rescue Plan Act funds after the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the need for pediatric behavioral health care. Children’s Hospital reported a 31% increase in cases by October 2020. That had doubled by May 2021, OU Health officials said.

Suicide is now Oklahoma’s second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-19, and Oklahoma is among the top 10 states in its youth suicide rates.

The pandemic also exposed a lack of treatment options for Oklahoma’s most mentally ill youth.

State Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, said right now, Oklahoma has to send its most severe mentally ill children out of state for care, which he said is “absolutely wrong.”

He said one 17-year-old was recently housed in OU’s emergency room for almost two months when officials last week found him a more appropriate placement.

Last August, Thompson said he traveled with OU officials to Ohio to look at behavioral health units in Columbus and Cincinnati. Ohio is a national leader in pediatric behavioral health treatment, he said.

“They have the people in them that they need to have to make sure we can change behaviors, or at least help the children meet a better quality of life,” Thompson said. “They have the facilities where they can bring children in, treat them with a great deal of respect that’s kind of one-on-one care.”

He said the youth are sometimes violent, and the rooms at the Ohio facilities are built in such a way that the children can’t hurt themselves or someone else but can still participate in activities and education and receive the attention they need.

Thompson said he wants to bring a similar model to Oklahoma because mental health is the No. 1 issue right now, and state leaders need to invest more resources where they’re most needed regardless of age.

Late last year, lawmakers also earmarked an additional $7.5 million in ARPA funds to help kick-start the project, but Thompson said it took time for OU to receive the promised funds due to delays in another branch of government.

He said the OU facility will be “life-changing” for youth and their families.

“They’re going to be able to stay close to their relatives,” Thompson said. “Their relatives are going to be able to come in and out and spend time with them, and they’re going to get the mental health (treatment) that they really need to lead a better quality of life.”

In a statement, OU Health said that the project has been two years in the making.

“We have a vision of establishing a world-class behavioral health center and the investment from the Legislature puts Oklahoma Children’s Hospital well on its way to completion,” the organization said, adding that it will take a public-private partnership to make the project come to fruition.

Currently, Oklahoma Children’s Hospital holds more than 40 patients per month in acute care medical beds who would be more appropriately placed in acute or residential psychiatric facilities. Most of the holds are for days at a time because of the limited pediatric resources in the state, OU Health said.

“As Oklahoma’s only comprehensive children’s hospital, Oklahoma Children’s Hospital is on the front lines of caring for the majority of children with behavioral health issues in the state,” OU Health said. “Strict regulatory guidelines and limited space have caused pediatric patients with behavioral health needs to often go untreated or receive insufficient treatment.”

The state’s investment will allow OU Health to “reduce the gap in the care of these at-risk children,” the medical system said.

OU Health has already begun demolition of the Beilstein Tower to make room for the new treatment facility at its main campus near the state Capitol.

State Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, said the ARPA expenditure is “a pretty big investment,” but the state has room to improve when it comes to pediatric mental health care.

“I’m supportive of anything we can do to expand services for mental health, especially for children,” Munson said, noting that much of the state’s mental health treatment talk revolves around adults.

Munson said she thinks about the families that don’t have the means to travel or leave their jobs to care for a child who is being treated for a serious mental health issue in another state.

She said increased early intervention will hopefully help correct behaviors.

“Adding behavioral health and having it be closely (tied) to the hospital is important in terms of how we destigmatize mental health and behavioral health,” Munson said. “It’s a part of the whole person. It’s not anything that anyone should be ashamed of. It’s part of health care.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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