Center for Rural Behavioral Health training clinic gets green light after Legislature approves funds

May 24—MANKATO — The wait time for mental health help may soon grow shorter thanks to the Legislature.

Advocates for the Center for Rural Behavioral Health at Minnesota State University secured $1.5 million in one-time money during the session for a training clinic.

The infusion of support is expected to improve mental health access in the region.

Mark Jones, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Health Association, has particularly noticed not only the lack of access to mental health care but also the need for workforce development.

"We've seen the loss of beds on the inpatient side. We've struggled to develop a workforce to support the outpatient mental health services in rural Minnesota. It's just been this battle to provide the outpatient visits, the inpatient beds and then the workforce to go along and support that," Jones said.

The Center for Rural Behavioral Health's future community-facing mental health training clinic, which aims to tackle the demand for services and workforce, will soon be a reality thanks to the state funding coming its way with Gov. Tim Walz's signature of the Health and Human Services bill on Wednesday.

The clinic will have a two-pronged approach, said center Director Thad Shunkwiler.

It will allow students within the university's five behavioral health programs to get an on-campus training experience. And it will provide affordable mental health services to the community.

"We now get to add an academic health center component where we get to provide real-world services to the Mankato region, ultimately," Shunkwiler said.

"At the same time it will allow the behavioral health programs at Minnesota State University to expand training capacity, be able to take more students into these programs because there are now more training opportunities for these students to be placed in."

The center is expected to provide mental health therapy, diagnostic assessments, psychotherapy and potentially chemical health services and medication management and prescriptions down the road, he has said.

The goal, Shunkwiler said, will be to keep the program as affordable as possible.

While their pricing model isn't set yet, he said the clinic will aim to serve everyone, including those who are underinsured, uninsured and who have Medicaid insurance.

"We wanted to make sure that this is a public resource for everyone regardless of their financial circumstances or insurance standing."

The funding for the clinic comes as mental health demands increase in rural Minnesota and statewide.

Recent Minnesota Student Survey results showed 29% of students reported long-term mental health problems statewide, compared to 23% in 2019 and 18% in 2016. Long-term means lasting six months or more, the survey results said.

"We have this higher percentage of students saying, 'I'm not OK,' and when mom, dad or the students themselves reach out for help, oftentimes that help isn't available or there's a significant wait for that help. We're trying to fill that gap," Shunkwiler said.

He and Jones said the training clinic also will have the benefit of keeping professionals in the region.

"Study after study will show you that if you train in a rural community, your likelihood of working in a rural community is exponentially higher," Jones said. "Training rural people to serve rural communities will give us a long-lasting effect."

Rep. Luke Frederick, DFL-Mankato, one of the authors of the original piece of legislation, said the potential for the training clinic's impact reaches Mankato and beyond, adding that his colleagues have echoed the clinic's benefits.

"They said, 'If this works in Mankato, we literally want to copy and paste it all throughout Greater Minnesota, all across the state,'" he said.

Jones also emphasized the long-term reach.

"It's going to have a downstream effect as these professionals graduate and that pipeline into the program is continually renewed," he said.

After a hearing for the bill in February, Shunkwiler said the center would keep their services affordable in a few ways and added that they are committed to serving everyone regardless of their ability to pay.

He said the center would bill patients' third-party payers or insurance if they have those services and added that students staffing the program also keeps it low cost.

He also said student staff would likely be compensated through graduate assistantships, which would provide them with a tuition waiver so they wouldn't have the cost of attending the graduate program as well as a stipend.

During the February hearing, Shunkwiler said once they're up and running, they'll be able to tap into existing funding streams such as grants and federal dollars aimed directly at clinic operations to help keep funding sustainable down the line.