Minnesota plans to shutter several state treatment facilities for people struggling with addiction and shift dollars, staff and space to increasingly in-demand mental health programs.

But lawmakers and facility employees are pushing back against the closures, saying the state is trading one problem for another. They are particularly concerned with the looming shutdown of the only state-run substance use disorder residential facility specifically for women.

"Some of these women have been traumatized by men. They have been trafficked, neglected, abused," said Tarajee Goorhouse, a nurse at the Carlton facility. She said the women-only environment allows people "to feel safer, and able to be a little more vulnerable and focus on their recovery."

Goorhouse and other employees picketed outside the Community Addiction Recovery Enterprise (CARE) facility this week and have been meeting with lawmakers in hopes of preventing its closure. The Carlton location is one of five 16-bed CARE centers around the state. The Department of Human Services has been planning to close the Carlton, St. Peter and Willmar programs and continue operating the Anoka and Fergus Falls locations.

Legislators appear poised to block the Carlton facility closure in their human services budget proposals, but a final deal on those big bills is likely still weeks away.

The potential CARE closures are part of a complicated game of chess DHS is using to try to quickly tackle the state's mental health crisis with limited state budget dollars available this year.

The state's psychiatric treatment facilities and hospitals have lengthy waitlists and too few beds to meet the skyrocketing demand for mental health services. People who have nowhere else to turn are often stuck in emergency rooms and jails as they await treatment. Doctors, social service workers, sheriffs and family members of those in need have been pleading with the state to address the crisis.

So DHS has proposed shuttering the 16-bed CARE program in St. Peter and repurposing the space and staff. The location would instead serve people who have been civilly committed by the courts as "mentally ill and dangerous," according to a DHS budget proposal detailing the shifts.

Patients who have that designation fill a number of coveted beds at Minnesota's largest psychiatric hospital, the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center. By shifting people to St. Peter, DHS officials said the Anoka hospital could admit 50 to 75 more patients with mental illness each year.

That change would come with new costs. If Minnesota closes the Carlton-based addiction recovery facility, which has struggled to retain staff and leases a building in need of repairs, it will save money that could be redirected to the new mental health services in St. Peter, DHS's budget plan says. Carlton employees would be offered positions at other state facilities.

The state decided last year to mothball the substance use disorder facility in Willmar, with services stopping June 30. DHS suggested that change could allow more staff to work at the Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health Hospital also located in the city and ensure that hospital is operating at full capacity.

There are no firm closure dates yet for the Carlton and St. Peter addiction programs, DHS officials said, but noted clients will be able to finish treatment before they are discharged.

Opposition to closures

AFSCME Council 5 has been collecting signatures on petitions to try to stop the closures.

The petitions state that each of the proposed closures is "not just an attack on a building; it's an attack on a community of vulnerable individuals who rely on its services for survival."

Rep. Natalie Zeleznikar, R-Fredenberg Township, toured the Carlton facility last week. She is among the lawmakers calling for the service to continue.

"To eliminate the only all-women location in the state of Minnesota ... to me just doesn't make any sense," she said, noting that the facility serves women who are pregnant and those with babies in a nearby neonatal unit. "To decrease the chemical dependency beds while improving beds somewhere else is really robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Zeleznikar pressed DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead on the situation during a recent committee hearing, asking, "Are we going to safely and adequately be able to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable people?"

"Not at all," Harpstead replied. "I mean, it's just scratching the surface."

But if the state built new mental health facilities it could take years before the first beds would be available, she said, so the agency is converting space to open as many beds as possible for psychiatric use.

"We've done the best we could with what we've had to work with this year," Harpstead said. "We've got much more to do."