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Federal funds would help complete new state mental hospital for Dallas as part of Texas Senate plan

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AUSTIN – Republican Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound’s proposal to spend Texas’ share of President Joe Biden’s relief program in March would spend $ 237.8 million of federal money to complete the construction of a new state mental hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Nelson on Friday introduced Senate Bill 8, his plan to spend $ 16.3 billion of federal funds destined for Texas in the American Rescue Plan Act.

As expected, the bill is spending $ 7.2 billion, or 44% of the money, to replenish the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund.

With unemployment skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fund’s balance has disappeared. Texas employers are worried about the arrival of an unprecedented increase in unemployment taxes. After the economic downturn of 2007-2009, Texas employer tax rates doubled. Throughout the year, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Speaker of the Senate, has pledged to use federal aid money to help prevent higher taxes on unemployment funds.

Nelson also offered to spend $ 3.7 billion of federal funds to reimburse Texas for the work of state employees on the pandemic response, $ 3 billion for back-up medical staff at the hospitals criticized. by COVID-19 and providing therapy to those infected with the virus and $ 500 million each higher education construction projects and broadband expansion. It would also spend $ 300 million on a “state operations center” to assist the state in disaster response and $ 286 million to cover COVID-related health claims for retired teachers.

But the next biggest allocation in SB 8 would be the nearly $ 240 million for the completion of a state mental hospital in Dallas.

“COVID-19 has impacted Texas on many fronts, and this bill takes a holistic approach to address a wide range of needs that emerged during the pandemic,” Nelson said in a written statement.

Referring to the Dallas Psychiatric Hospital and a program that provides mental health treatment to young people, which is said to get $ 113 million from its bill, Nelson said the measure “expands access to mental health care.” .

A spokesperson for the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, which is said to operate the new mental hospital, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

For years, the Parkland Memorial Hospital, citing a severe shortage of psychiatric beds, advocated the construction of a new public psychiatric hospital.

“We are delighted that Senator Nelson has included funding in his bill for a state-funded mental hospital in Dallas,” said Katherine Yoder, vice president of government relations at Parkland Health & Hospital System. “This is a critical need in our region and it will truly benefit the lives of many Parkland patients. “

In 2014, CannonDesign, an independent architectural and engineering design firm, found that Texas needed to fully replace five aging public hospitals and add 1,100 inpatient psychiatric beds over the next 10 years.

In 2017, the legislature launched a multi-year effort to renovate, replace and build new public psychiatric hospitals.

Since then, lawmakers have funded the construction of a new UTHealth Behavioral Science Center in Houston; new mental hospitals on existing campuses in San Antonio and Austin, replacing aging facilities; and improvements to existing public hospitals in Rusk and Kerrville.

Much to the irritation of some Dallas city leaders, however, the Dallas-Fort Worth area not only lacked an existing public hospital – the closest is in Terrell – but was rejected by legislative budget writers even for relatively small amounts of money requested for “pre-planning”.

The CannonDesign study had named “the Waco / Dallas / Arlington corridor” as one of the “three potentially underserved areas” in the state.

Business and civic leaders said they could not understand the failure of the North Texas legislative delegation to wrest part of the funds to build a mental hospital that would be located more centrally in the larger center. urban state.

Last May, lawmakers passed a two-year budget that included $ 44.7 million for the planning, design and purchase of land for the new Dallas State Hospital.

After the budget was signed, the Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees mental hospitals in the state, said moving the Dallas hospital forward was a priority.

“There is a critical need for additional inpatient mental health services in the Dallas area and we are excited to be working with UT Southwestern on this project to design a state-of-the-art hospital that meets the mental health needs of the community. . HHS Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young said in a written statement. “A new hospital will have a major impact on our ability to provide care to the most vulnerable Texans living in the surrounding Metroplex.”

Nelson, who heads the finance committee responsible for drafting the budget and is retiring from the Senate after nearly 30 years of service, was also brimming with optimism.

“A new public hospital will be a game changer for our region,” said Nelson.