This article has been updated to inlcude a clarification regarding Howard County Medical Center’s status as Howard County’s only 24-hour emergency psychiatric care provider.

Dr. Shafeeq Ahmed, president of Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center, left, and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball take the first swings with sledgehammers in work at the hospital that will result in a larger Behavioral Health Unit in Howard County. (TBM/Jason Whong)

Construction has begun on a new behavioral health unit at the Johns Hopkins Howard County Medical Center that aims to expand treatment space, address overcrowding issues and provide more timely care for patients experiencing a mental health crisis.

HCMC is the only hospital in the county, and the only facility that offers 24-hour emergency services for patients with emergency psychiatric needs. Sheppard Pratt Psychiatric Urgent Care in Elkridge offers emergency services as well, but is only open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily according to Lindsey Rowell, a spokesperson for Sheppard Pratt.

At a Dec. 5 ceremony to mark the beginning of the project, Dr. Shafeeq Ahmed, president of the Howard County Medical Center, said the new facility will “make a significant impact on the community” and addressed the problems it is designed to improve.

“We currently have a six-bed behavioral health unit in our emergency department, but approximately 11 patients on average are served daily,” he said.

The situation frequently means that behavioral health patients must be assigned to beds outside the secure behavioral health unit, presenting a challenge for the emergency department team.

The new unit will increase overall psychiatric care space from 1,500 to 7,000 square feet and provide the capacity to take care of up to 24 patients, if necessary.

“We will now have a safe healing environment to alleviate pressure on the demand for beds within the Emergency Department,” Ahmed said.

The facility will offer patient rooms suitable for all types of care and includes common areas for group and individual therapy, as well as areas where patients’ families can visit.

Construction of the Behavioral Health Unit is expected to cost approximately $10 million.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said his current budget proposal contains an additional $1 million for the project, increasing the County’s commitment to $2 million.

The Howard County delegation has also secured an additional $1.6 million in state funding.

“There is a dire need to invest in and expand our behavioral health infrastructure,” Ball said.

The Maryland Hospital Association’s analysis of hospital claims indicated that emergency department visits for behavioral health increased 14% between 2016 and 2018, at a time when all other types of ED visits decreased 10%.

Additionally, the MHA found that 18.3% of hospital visits in 2021 were related to behavioral health, up from 10.5% in 2013.

“We anticipate those numbers will rise,” Ball said. “The new behavioral health unit will ease overcrowding in the hospital and ensure that more of our neighbors will be able to receive timely and supportive care in an environment that supports them.”

Maryland State Sen. Clarence Lam, who is a practicing physician and represents Maryland’s District 12, which includes Columbia, said the expansion is an important step toward reducing emergency department wait times and making it easier for patients with behavioral health needs to seek care locally.

“When we took a look at our behavioral health network throughout the state, there were tremendous shortages of beds, in having an adequately trained workforce that can treat individuals, and in making sure there were enough outpatient clinics,” he said. “Opening up units like this are really important, but it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. That includes making it easier for people to access care by expanding availability of coverage.”

Ahmed said behavioral health patients will continue to be triaged in the emergency department.

“One of the problems we face is that these patients are transitional and must wait during the process of finding a provider that can accept them for any follow-on care they may need,” he said. “This new unit will provide a safe, secure place for them to receive care until that happens. It will obviously increase our need for staffing, and we will be adding more staff when we open.”

Howard County Medical Center’s new behavioral health unit is expected to open by the end of the next calendar year.