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Kids 'stack up' in Michigan ERs as hospitals resist adding 100+ needed psychiatric beds

'It's just unconscionable,' says hospital executive
Posted at 5:22 PM, Jun 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-14 18:27:14-04

(WXYZ) — In emergency rooms across Michigan, the same shameful scene plays out over and over again, just as it has for years.

“The first time we waited, it was about four days,” said Alexis Wyatt, whose 9-year-old daughter Athena suffers from bipolar disorder. “But the longest time we’ve ever waited, she was in the ER for 9 days.”

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Children like Athena in an acute mental health crisis are forced to wait—"stacked up,” as one frustrated hospital executive put it—because there is no bed available to treat them, only room to hold them.

“You would not turn away a child who has a broken arm,” Wyatt said, “but you take a child with a broken mind to an ER, and you’re told you have to sit there for days.”

The process has played out so many times, Wyatt says, that she’s grown numb to it.

“Nobody should have to be used to a broken system like this," she said.

But across the state, scores of families are. Since 2014, 7 Action News has been telling stories of children forced to board in hospital emergency rooms while waiting for a psychiatric bed to accept them, and the problem has only gotten worse.

Jennifer McCullough’s daughter Christen suffers from a whole host of mental disorders. She’s harmed herself with scissors and spoken of suicide.

“We’ve been in and out of the hospital over 15 times since July of last year,” she said, “and most of the time it’s the same thing: they can’t find a bed or we get denied.”

Just last month, Tammy Garner and her daughter received a police escort to Sparrow Hospital in Lansing after 14-year-old Ana-Mai was found trying to asphyxiate herself.

“(The officer) found my daughter with a plastic grocery bag on her head and an electrical cord wrapped around her throat,” Garner said.

The ER agreed to hold Ana-Mai until they found a psychiatric bed somewhere, but that wouldn’t be for days.

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“They just kept telling me: there are no beds available in Michigan,” she said.

Robert Nykamp is Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Pine Rest Hospital in Grand Rapids and has watched demand for his child and adolescent psych beds only grow over the years.

Even though his hospital is more than two hours away from Detroit, families from Metro Detroit and literally every county in Michigan make the drive because it’s often the only bed available in the state.

Through the years, Pine Rest has actually added more beds for children, but most hospitals don’t because they lose money.

“Kids with autism, kids with developmental disabilities kids with medical and psychiatric problems … are really expensive to take care of,” Nykamp said.

To calculate how many beds are needed throughout Michigan, the state uses something called “Certificate of Need.” In region 1, which covers Metro Detroit, the need is calculated at 173 child and adolescent psych beds, but there are only 148.

In region 2, covering six counties in the bottom half of the lower peninsula, the need is 30 beds for children, but there are only 16. Region 3, which covers the southwest corner of the state, calls for 35 beds, but there are only 6.

Region 5 calls for 25 beds, accoriding to the state, and and region 7 needs 17, but in each of them—covering 21 counties in all—there are none.

Add it all up, and Michigan is short more than 100 beds needed to treat children in a psychiatric crisis today, beds the state has already approved that hospitals are choosing not to open.

Mark Reinstein, the former CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan and a mental health advocate, says the state has an obligation to fill the gap.

“The problem is bad, it’s been bad for ages,” he said, “and no one’s doing anything that would really and truly fix it.”

One way the state could help to fix the problem—or at least lessen it—is by adding beds at the one children’s hospital it operates. The Hawthorn Center in Northville has a capacity to treat up to 118 children, but is funded to treat just 55.

It’s been that way for years. In fact, back in 2010, Hawthorn was funded to treat 65 children.

“They've got a waiting list of 40 plus kids waiting in there. Those kids get stacked up as well. It’s just unconscionable,” Nykamp said. “The state probably, minimally, should be looking at 50 plus more beds.”

But a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services told us last month that “(t)here are no plans to expand the number of beds at Hawthorn at this time.”

Then, after 7 Action News pressed further, the same spokesman later wrote that they were now “exploring … an increase in beds at Hawthorn Center.”

Despite repeated requests to talk to an official from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), the state declined.

“It simply comes down to funding priorities,” Nykamp said. “We’re choosing to use that money on other areas instead of this. And I think those are the wrong choices right now.”

Since the pandemic began, MDHHS has asked Pine Rest to open 40 emergency psychiatric beds to treat patients that are COVID-19 positive.

Those beds are still in use today, and Pine Rest says demand for them is so high, they want to make them permanent going forward to treat both adults and children even when the pandemic is over.

The request will require approval from the state.

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.