Local Buzz: Mental Health Cuts

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by Dwayne Pride
photographs by Adrian Diubaldo


“The difference between the closings before and the closings now is that this time half of the hospital will be closing down.”
—Steve Wager

As the state budget gets carved up, Colorado residents, state workers, service providers and clients are all scrambling to figure out what the looming budget cuts mean for them. One area of concern is among the health and human services. These services are directly responsible for supporting homeless and poor people in the metro area and across the state, a portion of whom are considered disabled. Fort Logan Mental Health Center is among the organizations taking large cuts to balance the budget, and the cuts could mean as many as 200 people won’t get needed mental health services.

Fort Logan provides hospital services for the mentally ill. It serves patients with complex, serious and persistent mental illnesses. There are 153 inpatient beds and 20 residential beds. Each year about 650 patients are admitted, according to hospital admissions at Fort Logan. Cuts could mean that most of these patients would need to be redirected to other institutional facilities or not hospitalized at all.

Fort Logan Mental Health Institute is losing much of its resources due to state budget reform.  Beds and employee hours are being cut, leaving employees unhappy and many homeless people without a place to recuperate. Photo by ADRIAN DIUBALDO.


Steve Wager is a mental health clinician for the Mountain Star Metro adolescence unit at Fort Logan. He and many others at the hospital are worried about what will happen to their jobs and their patients in the upcoming months. “We hate to see somebody leave and then get arrested and thrown back in jail again,” Wager said, referring to a cycle of arrests that some mentally ill patients go through when they become homeless or are left without proper medical services.

In the past few years, Wager’s adolescent unit has seen record numbers admitted. Many of those patients stay at least one week to be diagnosed and treated properly. Legally, the hospital is required to keep mentally ill patients that are admitted for at least 72-hours.

Up to 59 beds in at least three different units would be eliminated in the state hospital.  Geriatric and adolescent units would be closing, and the children’s unit may be losing as many as 16 of their beds. Fort Logan would continue to operate four inpatient adult psychiatric units with a total of 94 beds after the closings. All of these units are working divisions of the hospital, functioning as caretaking facilities. Homeless patients are admitted to these units through emergency rooms and referring physicians. Many of the units would be closed by January 1, 2010, though that may change if all aspects of the budget do not come together between the union and the state.

“I would prefer a clean cut layoff rather than all the waiting, worrying, and wondering    ‘Am I going to be bumped? Who can bump me?’” says Ann Merrill, a registered nurse that works with Team Five, a forensic male unit. According to Merrill, this is not the first time units have closed at Fort Logan. “There are others that have permanently closed and at least one of them was a transitional unit.”

Ann Merrill, a nurse at Fort Logan Mental Health Institute is losing many of her hours due to state budget cuts. Photo by ADRIAN DIUBALDO.

Steve Wager adds, “the difference between the closings before and the closings now is that this time half of the hospital will be closing down.” All of the previous closings were internal budget cuts. Today the cuts are being made on the state level. It is not only the hospital that is being looked at with the bottom line in mind. This time the entire state budget is on the line.

“Here we have a governor that says he is pro- mental health and then flips. That is the big difference right there,” Merrill says with sadness and frustration.

Over the past year Governor Ritter has closed budget shortfalls by $1.8 billion. State spending is down 10.4 percent. Three hundred positions throughout various agencies are being eliminated around the state. Some are calling on the governor to bring together a special session to address the current budget crisis, thinking that there may be a way to preserve some of the services and positions that may still be needed. The final budget must be balanced by November 2, 2009.

Organizers at Colorado Wins, the state employees union that represents Fort Logan workers, think that the units at Fort Logan should be saved, but aren’t being prioritized. Colorado Wins is strategizing with employees to help them with the current situation. One strategy proposed is to provide services at Fort Logan at a lower capacity and to shift some services to non-profits around the city. It may be a viable solution to keep many of the patients off the streets, and treating them is going to become a concern for the medical community in the state.

Originally, Fort Logan’s ultimate goal was to serve about half of Colorado’s population with mental health problems; it was considered to be an open hospital without bars. Much of the admissions were voluntary. Involuntary admissions were on a ‘hold and treat’ basis usually by a doctor or hospital referral, with a minimum stay or hold of 72 hours. Most of this is still the same today.

On May 15, 1959, the Colorado General Assembly appropriated the first funds for Fort Logan. On July 16, 1961, the first patient was admitted. It was first occupied by troops as a military post. Later on, the land was appropriated for $150,000 as Fort Logan Mental Health Center. In 1960 the federal government deeded the 308-acre site to Colorado as a hospital and living quarters for wayward youth and the mentally ill. Today the facility is known as Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan.