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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee's 60-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga could be in store for a $276.52 million transformation thanks to federal stimulus dollars under a proposal under consideration by Gov. Bill Lee's administration. The institute was photographed on Nov. 16, 2021.

NASHVILLE — The state's 60-year-old Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute would undergo a massive, $276.52 million renovation under a plan presented by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's administration to state lawmakers.

Officials are looking at using a portion of the state's share of federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund the project for the government psychiatric hospital complex that serves adults.

Plans include constructing several new buildings, boosting the number of beds from 165 to 200 and increasing space to conduct assessments of patients.

"We are really hoping what these dollars can be used for is the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute rebuild," state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Marie Williams told members of Lee's Financial Stimulus Accountability Group.

"We know that Moccasin Bend serves the most intensive care and treatment for patients struggling with mental health," Williams told the panel recently.

Moccasin Bend is state government's only East Tennessee regional facility and serves 52 counties. The state has three other mental health institutes, located in Nashville, Bolivar and Memphis. A fifth institute based in Knoxville closed in 2012.

Tennessee is expected to see an estimated $3.88 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act aid flowing into state coffers. The funding was passed by Congress in March, with no Republican votes.

Financial Stimulus Accountability Group members include top Lee administration officials, the House and Senate speakers and the respective chairs of the House and Senate finance committees, Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

In response to questions from House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, about accelerating the pace of patient assessments, Williams said plans are to build a new facility with more rooms to assess people with better technology.

Hazlewood said she was pleased that the plan would allow Moccasin Bend to boost its ability to assess incoming patients.

At a glance

— Opened: 1961

— Clients served: 2,424 individuals during Fiscal Year 2021.

— Total beds: 165

— Lengths of stay: 57 patients with a length of stay greater than 30 days, 22 patients with a length of stay greater than a year.

— Job: 459 full-time positions as of Oct. 31.

"The senator [Watson] and I really hope we do this," Hazlewood told Williams during the recent hearing. "We've been advocating that for a while."

Still, she had concerns about construction costs and questioned whether the state might look at alternative construction methods for design and delivery of the building projects with private sector contractors.

Watson, a physical therapist who works for HCA Healthcare, asked what the price comparisons were for the state's operation of Moccasin Bend compared to the private sector in terms of cost per bed and whether the state was operating the facility more or less efficiently than the private sector.

"While I get building a new facility and stuff, does the private sector have a space to play in this?" Watson asked.

Williams said the department has been meeting with private sector representatives on what they can and cannot do.

"What I can tell you is our costs still remain some of the lowest in the industry," Williams said. "Part of that is because our TennCare reimbursement rate is so low. It's lower than any other mental health hospitals, and that's what sort of brings us in at a lower cost per patient."

She said in contrast, Memphis Mental Health Institute has a higher cost per patient.

"But chairman, I'd say for Moccasin Bend when you compare it to other private facilities, whether it's Acadia or St. Thomas or Vanderbilt, because we've been in conversations with those, you will know that we're able to run [Moccasin Bend] comparably."

Williams said that with legislative approval, the state expects design and preplanning to begin in Fiscal Year 2022-23. Construction would begin in FY 2023-24 and continue into FY 2024-25.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Goals of Moccasin Bend renovation

Mental Health Commissioner Marie Williams’ top aides say that with a more modern facility, Moccasin Bend would be able to do the following:

— Implement more modern treatment methods.

— Offer more space for patients and staff to safely offer social distance for infectious patients while reducing anxiety and tension caused by such close quarters.

— Keep patients and staff safe by offering more interior space as well as more frequent access to outdoor areas.

— Effectively protect patient confidentiality by removing visitor rooms from each treatment unit.

— Operate a facility built under the “most current health care facility design and construction guidelines.”

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