Austin State Hospital set to open new, redesigned facility this summer

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After years of planning, design and construction, the Austin State Hospital’s redesigned campus is ready for patients.

Officials gathered outside the limestone facade of the nearly 382,000-square-foot hospital for a ribbon cutting Wednesday, marking the yearlong journey to revamp Austin’s oldest hospital. The $305-million facility aims to serve those with the highest needs for mental health care, often patients who are low-income and in dire need of services.

The ribbon-cutting capped off more than a decade of work on the part of Kirk Watson, who started lobbying in 2011 as a state senator for the new facility to replace Texas’ oldest hospital, which opened in 1861 near Hyde Park. Now Austin’s mayor, Watson reflected on that long road after the ceremony, noting the abundance of natural light filling the new, marble-floored facility accented with pecan desks repurposed from trees that were cut down for the project.

“That may not seem like a lot,” he said. “But it actually, it gets me emotional because of what it means. Not only to the health of the people that will be here, but it’s almost a symbol of the difference that we’re making in people’s lives because of the light that we’re now going to bring into their lives.”

A large white building with tall black windows is seen from the street. "Austin State Hospital" is marked in large print letters on the front.

The new Austin State Hospital facility is expected to have patients in the rooms later this summer.

The new site features individual rooms and restrooms for 240 patients across three floors. It also has multiple courtyards, a gym, two basketball courts, an art room, a bank and a self-styled downtown to help patients acclimate to life outside the hospital while undergoing treatment. Patients are expected to transfer to the new site this summer.

The hospital is one of 10 facilities in the state hospital system run by the Health and Human Services Commission. HHSC has been calling for a revamp of facilities in that system for more than a decade — specifically, the Austin State Hospital, which has been standing since before railroad tires cut through the Texas capital. While state spending on mental health programs and facilities has increased for more than a decade, patients still face an uphill battle in getting treatment.

Many patients are routed to state hospitals from county jails. If someone with mental illness isn’t fit to stand trial, they are sent to state hospitals — if there’s room. If there isn’t, they wait.

Currently, there are 138 people in Travis County’s jail system who are awaiting a bed at the Austin State Hospital. That includes one inmate who, as of May 15, has waited an entire year for a bed at the Austin State Hospital, according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

A group of people stands behind a green ribbon that has been cut in front of the new Austin State Hospital.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony with community leaders at the new Austin State Hospital took place Wednesday.

Scott Schalchlin, HHSC’s deputy executive commissioner for Health and Specialty Care, said the new facility won’t add more capacity in Central Texas, as the remodel merely replaces the 240 beds in the hospital’s former site. But, he said, the facility is a much-needed improvement for patients, who can’t afford for-profit mental health care.

“The patients that we serve don’t always have the financial means and … have a lot of mental health challenges,” he said “[For them to] be able to be served in that same beautiful setting as … a for-profit hospital that says a lot about the services that we’re providing and our staff deserve it.”

Schalchlin added that HHSC will continue to ask the Texas Legislature to address unmet needs in the state’s hospital system and that ‘there’s always going to be a demand for mental health services,”

Sonja Burns, a mental health advocate whose brother stays in the Austin State Hospital said she hoped HHSC would expand on the improvements at the 80-acre campus to include more care options for patients who may need longer-term stays in the state’s care.

“We have so many people that have either been on all the highest levels of care or have never [had care] because they cannot meaningfully engage and they discharge and cycle and cycle and cycle,” she said. “We have an opportunity right now.”


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