After one year in operation, Perimeter Behavioral Hospital of Springfield officials say they have discovered an underserved population in the community: children.
Lynn Lemke, the hospital’s CEO, says the need for child behavioral health care in the Springfield area has become more apparent over the last year as the demand has outpaced the hospital’s bed and employee capacity.
Lemke says he’s hired an additional four nurses to attempt to keep up at the 32-bed hospital, and he plans to add roughly another 10 employees this year.
“We were maxed out until we hired more nurses,” he says of the 100-person staff. “Now, our goal this year is to average 25-27 patients a day.”
The hospital, owned by Alpharetta, Georgia-based Perimeter Healthcare, specializes in acute behavioral health care for children ages 6-17. Treatments cover depression, suicidal thoughts, erratic behaviors and other mental illnesses, Lemke says.
However, children weren’t the original focus.
Perimeter Healthcare, which operates 12 hospitals nationwide, purchased the former Ozarks Community Hospital in October 2018, and after receiving state licensure to operate, the behavioral hospital opened in April 2019.
“The first four months, we toyed with adults and geriatrics, and then we recognized the community’s need was kids. We flipped that switch,” says Erica Fox, vice president of business development for Perimeter Healthcare.
The hospital turned its focus to children in October 2019, joining Lakeland Behavioral Health System, which provides mental health services to children and seniors, and area local hospitals.
Between geriatrics and children, the Springfield hospital admitted 544 patients and had 1,966 referrals in 2019. In the first quarter this year, the hospital admitted 198 child patients, Fox says.
As demand increases, Lemke anticipates 2020 revenue to reach $8 million, which he says would be an increase from undisclosed 2019 figures.
Children are referred to Perimeter Behavioral Hospital through several avenues: a local health care provider, emergency room staff, the public schools or a government entity. Patients typically stay at the hospital for a week and then are referred to long-term outpatient care at Burrell Behavioral Health or Jordan Valley Community Health Center, for instance.
“We’re here to get them stabilized,” Lemke says.
When Lemke joined the hospital in January, he says staff members were treating roughly a dozen patients a day. By March, around 20 children were in daily treatment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.4% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 – or 4.5 million children – have a diagnosed behavior problem. Also, the CDC says 1 in 6 children between the ages of 2 and 8 have been diagnosed with a mental or behavioral disorder.
Lemke says that since the local stay-at-home order was enacted, the number of referrals has dropped, and the hospital is averaging a dozen patients a day. Lemke says the hospital “was on the edge” of having to furlough staff because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by press time.
Fox says a drop in patients also is occurring at Perimeter Healthcare hospitals nationwide as children are pulled from school and many are attempting to stay away from emergency rooms out of the fear of contracting COVID-19.
“Our census has taken a pretty big dip. A lot the kids that come here use counseling services through school, and now that they’re home, they’re pretty much unsupervised,” Lemke says.
Springfield Public Schools spokeswoman Teresa Bledsoe says the district’s counseling department provides parents information regarding Perimeter Behavioral Hospital’s services when necessary, though it does not formally refer students to the hospital.
Students who need to be out of school for an extended period of time, such as to undergo treatment at Perimeter, can use the school’s homebound services to continue their education, she says.
Now that the school district is closed through the end of the academic year due to COVID-19, Bledsoe says school counselors are making themselves available through online platforms.
Within the next few years, Lemke says he’s planning $70 million in expansions. This includes developing a program for children with learning disabilities and doubling the capacity of the hospital, he says.
Lemke says his goal is to develop a program where parents and children with learning disabilities, such as autism, can come for several weeks for a behavioral analysis and an individualized program.
“A lot of psych hospitals won’t take those kids,” Lemke says. “There aren’t many programs like that around the country, and nothing like that in the state of Missouri.”
He says children who participate in the program are likely to stay at the hospital for up to three weeks. However, Lemke says the hospital is already running into capacity issues for normal daily operations.
Lemke plans to double the hospital’s bed count to bring capacity to roughly 70 beds. That’ll first need to be approved by the state.
“The safest place for these children to be is within the confines of a psychiatric hospital. When we’re at capacity, they have to be discharged back to the homes which might not be safe,” Lemke says. “We need to have the capacity to meet the needs of the community.”
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