LVHN and Universal Health Services break ground on new mental health hospital in the Lehigh Valley

Construction officially started on Lehigh Valley Health Network and Universal Health Services’ new behavioral health hospital Wednesday.

A groundbreaking ceremony for Hanover Hill Behavioral Health was held near Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg in Hanover Township, Northampton County. Once completed, the new hospital on Macada Road will be 95,000 square feet and three stories tall with 144 beds. LVHN and Universal Health plan to open the hospital in fall 2025.

The hospital’s construction comes amid an ongoing mental health crisis in the U.S. This crisis has much to do with unmet needs due to a shortage of providers, a lack of inpatient and outpatient services, and reimbursement and billing challenges.

More than 1.7 million Pennsylvanians live in a community that does not have enough mental health professionals, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Five Pennsylvanians die by suicide every day.

The lack of community inpatient and outpatient mental health resources has also resulted in many people with severe mental illness being jailed and imprisoned. Nationally, about 44% of people incarcerated in local jails have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. People with a major mental illness diagnosis are about 50% more likely to be sentenced for a misdemeanor than those without a mental illness, a 2019 study found.

Dr. Brian Nester, president and CEO of LVHN, drew a direct line between the current situation the country is in and the shuttering of mental health hospitals in the latter half of the 20th century.

“If I could take you back to the 1960s, we had about 450,000 inpatient psychiatric beds in America. That’s largely because we hid people from communities in those types of places and we also didn’t have good therapies, psychology therapies or medication therapies,” Nester said. “Today we are under 50,000 inpatient beds with a blossom and explosion in mental and behavioral health problems. We’ve gone the wrong way. We’ve made great improvements but we have not been satisfactory at caring for our communities.”

When the hospital was announced in winter 2023, Edward Norris, chair of the LVHN psychiatry department, said that better access to high-quality behavioral health care is consistently a top priority on the network’s community needs assessments.

At the event, Norris said the hospital will go a long way to helping address the growing demand for high-quality behavioral health care services for people of all ages. It’ll be a major undertaking too; when fully operational, the facility will create 300 full-time jobs including clinicians, nurses, mental health technicians, counselors and administrative staff.

“Often the first step of treatment is in one of our emergency rooms,” Norris said. “This new hospital will allow us to provide more care for patients who present at emergency departments and need more care. It will allow our emergency departments to more effectively and efficiently move patients to the proper level of care and out of our EDs into the inpatient unit.”

This hospital is a collaboration between LVHN and King of Prussia-based Universal Health Services, the largest mental health care provider in the country, with more than 330 behavioral health facilities in the U.S. and United Kingdom and more than 56,000 employees. The publicly traded, Fortune 500 health care giant generated $14.3 billion in net profit and treated about 730,000 behavioral health patients in 2023, according to its annual report.

Universal Health Services has faced its fair share of scandal and controversy. In 2021, it agreed to pay $122 million to settle allegations that it violated federal law by falsely billing Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, Veterans Affairs and Federal Employee Health Benefit programs for unnecessary inpatient behavioral health services and failing to provide adequate and appropriate services.

Universal Health has also been the subject of recent investigative reporting by Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting on how the health care company profits from the U.S.’s child welfare system. Universal Health Services and its behavioral health facilities were also the subject of a 2016 investigative series from BuzzFeed News.

Universal Health Services did not respond to a request for comment. However, in a speech delivered during the groundbreaking event, Matt Peterson, Universal Health’s president of behavioral health, said patients graded overall care at 4.4 out of 5 in patient satisfaction surveys, and 91% of those surveyed said they felt better following a care at a Universal Health facility.

During his speech, Vic Radina, Universal Health’s senior vice president of corporate development, said during the COVID-19 pandemic a family member of his experienced a mental health crisis and was treated at a Universal Health Services facility.

“We want our patients to feel valued, we want them to feel appreciated, we want them to feel deeply cared for, to respect their integrity and help them get to the next stage of their lives,” Radina said.

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