Health care stakeholders are pushing to attract more psychiatrists, build new facilities and obtain funding to increase mental and behavioral health resources in Central Texas.

Several projects are underway to address resource and physician shortages, including the April opening of the first psychiatric emergency department in Central Texas at University Medical Center Brackenridge.

We are going to have mental health services at the right place at the right time, in the right setting with the right intensity, said Dr. Kari Wolf, vice president of medical affairs for psychiatry at Seton Healthcare Family. Its going to be multipronged. We are going to have increased access to mental health care in primary care settingsin schools, in workplacesreally making mental health care available to anyone who needs it at the time that they need it.

All of Austins psychiatric facilities consistently operate at full capacity, Wolf said, including Seton Shoal Creek Hospital, an inpatient facility with about 90 beds.

We have so many gaps in the current health care delivery system, and that is especially prominent for behavioral health, Wolf said. This [emergency department] is filling one gap, but there are still so many more. If you look at just plain outpatient care, it is hard for people who have their first [psychotic] episode or an anxiety episode. They are really dependent on getting that care treatment from their primary care doctors because there is such a huge shortage of mental health professionals.

The psychiatric emergency department opened April 29 and is intended to reduce overcrowded general emergency rooms and connect patients with follow-up care after they are stabilized. Prior to the ED opening, people in psychiatric crisis often ended up in emergency rooms, which are not equipped with psychiatric medical staff. The new ED, located on the second floor of the hospital, is staffed with psychiatrists, psychiatric family medicine advanced practice nurses, social workers, nurses and clinical assistants. The 17,600-square-foot facility has 17 beds and serves anyone age 18 and older, including people experiencing mental health symptoms such as anxiety, suicide threats or psychosis, Wolf said. Although the department provides some relief to the overburdened mental health sector, people in need of mental health services are still grappling with challenges. Because of a shortage in psychiatrists, many psychiatrists do not accept commercial health insurance, and patients often have to pay cash for counseling treatment, Wolf said. The psychiatrist shortage also creates difficulty in appointment availability.

In the next year, Austin Travis County Integral Care and Central Health, Travis Countys public-funded health care district, hope to find a location to build a 16-bed extensive observation unit, or EOU, which is less expensive than inpatient admission and psychiatric ED visits and provides less restrictive care for patients, said Dawn Handley, ATCICs chief program operations officer. The closest EOU is Bluebonnet Trails in Williamson County, which has three or four available beds, she said.

We really need the funding to expand our capacity to fully serve our community members, Handley said. ... Theres a shortage. Until we can get our psychiatrists, our physician and social work concerns addressed, we are going to continue to struggle.