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Workforce woes complicate Catawba Hospital plans

Half a million dollars will help Virginia secure health care partners to run a reimagined Catawba Hospital, as recent overdose data reinforces the need for improved mental and behavioral health services around Roanoke.

When Virginia lawmakers struck a state budget deal last week, it included $500,000 out of the $15 million that Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, requested to kick-start renovations at the state-run psychiatric hospital in Roanoke County.

“At least we’re moving forward with a small next step,” Rasoul said during a phone call. “Hopefully we can continue to build broad consensus around creating an ecosystem that helps alleviate substance use disorder.”

The vision for Catawba Hospital is to transform it into “a state-of-the-art campus at which a continuum of substance abuse treatment and recovery services” is provided, in addition to behavioral health services currently available, said a health department study published in January.

The study said there is a need for upward of 250 additional addiction and behavioral health treatment beds in the Catawba Hospital area through 2030. Depending on scope, renovations could cost between $147 million and $240 million, the study said.

“For Virginia, this will be a first of its kind, in the sense that the state is laying the groundwork for more residential treatment beds,” Rasoul said. “We don’t have enough beds in the region, which is what the study said, and why we’re doing this.”

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, is a member of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. During a phone call, he said the state doesn’t need to hurry toward construction on Catawba Hospital before other details are lined up first.

“The issue was trying to figure out how to allocate the scarce resources we have for mental health in a way that’s going to provide the most services to people as quickly as we can,” Deeds said. “This just wasn’t something we could do right now without a commitment from some third party to provide the services.”

So the $500,000 Catawba Hospital did get from state budget amendments will go toward securing public-private partnerships, seeking health care providers that can tend to those future treatment beds.

“It’s a good idea, but these are state tax dollars,” Deeds said. “With those dollars, we can’t be in a ‘build it and they will come’ mode. We have to plan appropriately.”

Top of mind for Deeds is a 30% vacancy rate within Virginia’s behavioral health system, he said. The recent budget deal put $18 million toward increasing pay rates to fill those vacancies, plus some other efforts to build system capacity, Deeds said.

“A workforce crisis does indeed exist within Virginia’s publicly-funded behavioral health system,” said a health department report published in October. “Vacancies are impacting service delivery across the mental health, substance use, and developmental disability system.”

Meanwhile, Roanoke last year posted the third-highest fatal drug overdose rate in Virginia, led first by Petersburg and second by Richmond, according to state data. There were 123 fatal overdoses recorded in Roanoke last year, compared to 46 overdose deaths in 2019, data shows.

For Rasoul, it’s all the more reason to move from simply reimagining Catawba Hospital to actually funding it for renovation. Bills he has brought to the legislature in support of the project have seen bipartisan support.

“We’re bringing it right back next session,” Rasoul said.

So far toward forming a public-private partnership, Carilion Clinic has been involved discussing Catawba Hospital plans with peers and stakeholders, providing input as a community partner, said an email from Media Relations Consultant Hannah Curtis on Friday.

“We’ll continue to be involved in determining Catawba’s future through thoughtful collaboration with those groups in the coming months and years,” Curtis said. “We look forward to seeing the findings from the General Assembly’s future evaluation.”

Mental health services are a top need identified by Carilion Clinic’s community health assessments, she said. Carilion is opening a mental health facility in Tanglewood Mall this fall, Curtis said.

“We’ve also taken lessons learned during the pandemic to meet patients where they are, whether that’s through increased access to telemedicine visits or convenient outpatient care options,” Curtis said. “Mental health needs continue to grow, and we’re working to destigmatize and deliver these critical services.”

Deeds said he supports the plans to expand and improve services at Catawba Hospital. But somebody has to commit to providing those services.

“I’ve spent years fighting, clawing and scratching for more money for mental health services,” Deeds said. “I’m going to make doggone sure that the money we are able to get is spent as wisely as possible to get services to people who need it, as quickly as we can.”

(Source: The Roanoke Times)


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