HERMISTON — Just months after opening Aspen Springs Psychiatric Hospital in Hermiston, Lifeways, Inc. has announced it is closing the hospital as an acute care facility due to difficulties staffing it.
The 16-bed inpatient hospital for acute psychiatric care officially opened in September 2020 and, according to a news release from Lifeways, served a total of 75 patients. However, the community mental health provider announced on Wednesday, April 7, it was closing the hospital as an acute facility effective at midnight on Thursday, April 8.
The news release stated Lifeways will work with Oregon Health Authority to find "an alternative level of care for Aspen Springs that is more aligned with health care worker availability." Liz Johnsen, chief operating officer for Lifeways, told the East Oregonian that the building would likely continue to offer inpatient care, but as a secure residential treatment facility, which operates under different staffing requirements.
Lifeways already operates secure residential treatment facility in Umatilla, known as McNary Place, and Johnsen said there is still additional need for that type of bed.
According to the news release, the Lifeways board of directors made the decision to cease offering acute care for individuals in crisis at the Hermiston facility because "the realities of COVID-19 and the health care worker shortage, especially for rural psychiatric hospital level licensure and credentialing, creates an unsustainable situation."
Johnsen clarified that the biggest problem was finding psychiatrists, which under Oregon rules for acute psychiatric care hospitals, must staff the facility 24 hours a day. Johnsen said Lifeways had received a waiver from the state allowing psychiatrists to provide care via telemedicine for 12 months. But after Aspen Springs passed six months of operation, plus months of recruitment efforts before that, with no luck finding even a single full time psychiatrist willing to come to Hermiston, Johnsen said it became increasingly clear that Aspen Springs would not be able to meet requirements when the waiver was up.
And so as we looked forward, and knew that waiver wouldn't be granted, and really looked at the care that we were bound to provide, it was just untenable," she said.
On top of that, Johnsen said it was also difficult to find enough nurses willing to work in both a psychiatric setting and a rural setting, particularly during the pandemic.
The closure of Aspen Springs is a blow to efforts to bring more mental health care to Eastern Oregon. When interviewed for the ribbon cutting for Aspen Springs in 2020, Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer told the East Oregonian there was a "humongous need" for more psychiatric care beds, and that inadequate mental health care resources was the most pressing need in the county.
Dennis Burke, who was CEO of Good Shepherd Health Care System at the time, also spoke of the struggle to find beds like those offered by Aspen Springs. Johnsen said Lifeways has worked with Good Shepherd in its effort to recruit mental health providers to the area.
Brian Sims, current CEO and president of Good Shepherd, said the organization was saddened to learn of the closure.
"It will be a big loss, but we remain hopeful there will continue to be alternative solutions for our communities," he said in an email.
Lifeways originally broke ground on the Aspen Springs building at 1212 Linda Ave. in July 2016, stating its intent to open the facility a year later, but instead began taking patients in September 2020. In 2019, Johnsen told the East Oregonian that it had taken longer than expected to meet all of the state's strict requirements for the highest level of psychiatric care.
With the facility's closure, she said Lifeways leadership had known it would be difficult to staff it due to the challenges of finding licensed mental health providers willing to work in rural areas. But they had expected to be able to find enough people in time.
"It's always been a risk point for us, but we didn't think it would get to this level," she said.
She said they are open to reopening the building as a hospital again in the future if the psychiatrists become available to do so, but for now, the staff and board felt the best option was to focus on providing a different level of care there rather than letting the building sit empty after the waiver ran out.
"It's a great facility and we want to make it available in whatever capacity we can," she said.
In the news release about the closure, Lifeways stated the organization appreciated the support from partners throughout the state and the community.
"Lifeways remains dedicated, even in these unpredictable times, to those needing a care team to walk by their side on their journey back to health and wellness. Thank you for your continued support during this transition," the release stated.
Former Aspen Springs patients can access their records by contacting
Lifeways Medical Records Supervisor Julie Hyslop at 702 Sunset Drive in Ontario or firstname.lastname@example.org.