Universal Health Services to build 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Milwaukee County

County Behavioral Health Division board approves contract with private hospital operator

The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex at the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

The Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division’s board has approved an agreement with Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services to build a 120-bed acute-care psychiatric hospital in the county over the next two years.

The Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex at the Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa.

UHS, a private hospital operator based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, will build and operate a freestanding inpatient mental health facility that will take on the services currently provided at the psychiatric hospital in the county’s Mental Health Complex at 9455 W. Watertown Plank Road in Wauwatosa.

The board approved Wednesday a contract with UHS, following seven months of negotiations between the Mental Health Board and the hospital operator.

The UHS facility will be an independent hospital open to all members of the community, including those currently treated at the county’s inpatient hospital. The BHD said it will continue to ensure everyone in Milwaukee County behavioral health services, regardless of their ability to pay.

The location of the planned hospital has not been disclosed. The contract dictates only that it be located within Milwaukee County. 

UHS currently operates about 350 facilities in the United States, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom.

The county’s Behavioral Health Division has been in a multi-year process of moving services off its aging, 900,000-square-foot campus that was built in 1978 to provide acute, long-term and emergency psychiatric care. The county, responding to changes in best practices of mental health services, has shifted to a more community-based system of care that relies less on inpatient admissions and emergency room visits.

“The decision is part of a significant change in approach in how we treat people seeking help for mental health concerns,” said Mary Jo Meyers, director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services. “The philosophy, evidence and laws regarding care for people with mental health needs are changing, and so are globally recognized best practices. We will be well-positioned to provide the up-to-date care that is needed to help support and serve people seeking help.”

The outsourcing of the acute mental health services to UHS paves the way for the county to eventually close the Wauwatosa complex.

The new UHS hospital will not include an emergency department and observation wing, services that are currently provided by BHD at the complex. Mike Lappen, administrator of BHD, said his department is working with the Wisconsin Policy Forum and is in discussions with local health systems to identify where those services will be located once the new hospital opens.

Lappen said the new hospital is expected to open in late 2020 with a smaller footprint and scale up over the next three to nine months. The hospital would be fully operational in the summer 2021, Lappen said.

When exactly the Mental Health Complex will close permanently has not been determined, he said.

“No one is pushing us out the door,” he said.

BHD first began its search for an organization or company to outsource its acute care services to in 2015. UHS and Nashville-based Correct Care Solutions emerged as two viable possibilities early on, but Correct Care Solutions later withdrew its bid. In the spring of 2017, three area providers, Rogers Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Ascension, expressed interest in submitting a joint proposal, but pulled out of the running a few months later. UHS ultimately emerged as the sole bidder.

The contract with UHS does not require the provider to retain current BHD employees.

“The only negative I feel about this deal is a lot of county employees are going to lose their jobs with the county,” Lappen said, adding that the move is best for patients.

However, he said, because UHS will need to staff a facility that is about three times the size of BHD’s acute psychiatric hospital, it would make sense for UHS to retain the county employees.

“We have the folks,” he said. “It would be smart for them to do a transition so they can staff up.”

The BHD has made a big push in recent years to recruit nurses through media campaigns and community outreach, facing both the national shortage of mental health professionals, along with persistent rumors that the hospital is closing.

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