Sen. Kirk Watson looks to innovate psychiatric care in Central Texas

Van Nguyen

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has partnered with the Dell Medical School to innovate psychiatric care in Central Texas and replace the Austin State Hospital, which was built in the 1850s.

The Texas Brain Health Center, as he refers to it, is Watson’s vision to replace the state psychiatric hospital with a center for brain health care, research and education. ASH, located on 41st and Guadalupe Streets, currently serves Travis County and 37 other counties in Central Texas. But according to state agencies, its old infrastructure can be replaced. 

“Our objective is to create a brain health center of excellence that will both improve access to care in Central Texas and be a destination for world-class care for brain health,” Kate Alexander, Watson’s policy director, said in an email.

In 2014, a report released by the state Health and Human Services Commission concluded five of the 11 state psychiatric hospitals were beyond repair and needed replacement. ASH is one of the five. 

According to the report, the infrastructure at ASH is not suitable to support the needs of contemporary care. The current number of beds for patients at ASH is 257, but the report recommends 350 beds, HHSC spokesperson Christine Mann said.

“This isn’t just about building another building,” Watson said to the Austin American-Statesman. “This is about taking an opportunity. We have an energized mental health community and I think if we spend some time planning, yes, we end up with a model that can be replicated nationally.” 

Last Spring, Watson reached out to Stephen Strakowski, Dell Medical psychiatry chair, asking him to lead the group in charge of the planning surrounding ASH. 

Strakowski said school officials have been in stages of pre-planning and are consulting with outside sources to plan their next steps for ASH. Currently, the Dell Medical School is waiting for funding from the Texas Legislature.

Strakowski said one of Dell Medical’s goals is to look at how to provide care where it meets the patient’s needs more directly. One problem with current psychiatric care is patients may be spending more time in hospitals than they need to, Strakowski said. As they redefine the current model, Strakowski said he believes the cost of care will go down because they will be able to treat patients more efficiently. 

“Part of redesign is to look at not only more of what we have, but better designs to meet the needs (of patients) more effectively, ideally in a less costly way so that our dollars go to take care of more people and to produce better outcomes,” Strakowski said. 

Strakowski estimates the time to create plans for the facility and testing of Dell Medical's psychiatric care models will continue for a year or more after the Texas Legislature approves funding. 

A budget will not be approved by the Texas Legislature until close to the end of May, when members adjourn before next session.