A lawmaker wants to sell Utah State Hospital, on coveted land in Provo foothills

The proposal calls for funds from the sale to go toward building new, dispersed state hospital facilities and providing other mental health resources.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, who is sponsoring the proposed bill to sell the Utah State Hospital property, speaks on the House floor at the Capitol, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

After more than a century in Provo, the Utah State Hospital may be moving to a new home. Or multiple new homes, if Rep. Tyler Clancy gets his way.

The Republican representing Provo has proposed a bill that, if passed, would require the state to sell the Utah State Hospital property at the foot of the Wasatch mountains in east Provo.

This proposal comes after years of public officials decrying a shortage of staff and space for patients at the Provo facility, and after a failed attempt last year to pass a bill that would have commissioned a study on the feasibility of such a move.

This year, however, Clancy’s HB299 is proposing a total overhaul. His bill includes plans for how to use money from the sale of the state hospital property, and the tax revenue generated afterward, to build future facilities across the state and fund mental health resources.

The goal, he said, is to construct state hospital facilities in northern, central and southern Utah to serve more patients closer to their homes. The Utah State Hospital currently provides 348 beds, split between its adult, juvenile and forensic units, and Clancy said he hopes the new facilities will triple the number of available beds.

“The crucial point for me is that right now, jails and prisons are our No. 1 mental health provider. Let’s change that. Let’s make sure people get the care we deserve. And, yeah,” Clancy said, “that is going to take some investment. But if we don’t do that, we’re going to pay for it.”

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services did not oppose or support the proposal in a written statement, saying it was still studying the bill’s potential impact. The statement, released to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, called it a “first step” in having a “serious discussion” around Utah’s mental health needs — including bed capacity at the state hospital.

“DHHS is committed to continuing to work with the sponsor on solutions that provide the best care and treatment for those experiencing a serious mental illness,” the statement read. “We seek an adequate process that assesses the cost, timing, and feasibility and its ability to maintain or improve care for those we serve.”

Clancy told The Tribune in a text message that he is still working to refine the bill “to find the right way forward to build the service model we think is right” and that the proposal will likely “dramatically change” before it appears for discussion in a committee hearing.

The bill has been introduced in the House for a first reading, but as of Friday afternoon had not yet been scheduled to or a committee hearing and vote.

‘There is an economic development opportunity here’

Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, was transparent with the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee in January 2023 when he discussed his earlier proposal to study moving the Utah State Hospital.

“This bill idea came to my attention about a year and a half ago. It was an idea brought to me by the owner of Splash Summit, who owns the property right next to the state hospital,” he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove, as the House Judiciary Committee meets in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Hawkins proposed a bill last session that would have studied the feasibility of moving the Utah State Hospital from coveted real estate at the foot of the Wasatch mountains in Provo.

The owners wanted to know if the state would ever sell the land, and Hawkins said he told them no. But then he and the owners started talking about opportunities, and Hawkins later decided to run his bill, proposing exploration of a move and how it could help with staffing and wage issues.

Hawkins conceded that the property was “prime real estate” and that “there is an economic development opportunity here.“

“But,” he continued, “that is not why I’m running this bill.”

He said he wanted to model a commission that would study the move after the group that oversaw finding a new location for the Utah State Prison. The new prison opened in west Salt Lake City in 2022 — on wetlands that provide prime habitat for migratory birds and hungry mosquitos — so developers could build The Point at the prison’s old location in Draper.

Clancy said Friday that the economic development opportunity presented by the state hospital site also was a factor in his proposal. Adequately funding mental health resources in the state would take a lot of money — perhaps a billion dollars — and this lucrative real estate could help provide that, he said.

“The value of that land in Provo is tremendous. ... I can only speak for myself, but rather than let that kind of lapse in 30 years, and then just let it go wherever, if we could have a plan and kind of extract that capital for the mental health services” it would provide “worthwhile funding,” he said.

Representatives from the Utah State Hospital, Utah Hospital Association, Department of Health and Human Services, Disability Law Center, Mental Health America of Utah and others all opposed the 2023 bill when they spoke during a public comment period. Amelia Powers Gardner, chairwoman of the Utah County Commission, was the only person who gave public comment in support of the bill.

Dallas Earnshaw, superintendent of the state hospital, told lawmakers he saw no need to move the hospital campus, especially after the Legislature had allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over the last two decades to make it “one of the most modern and state-of-the-art facilities in the country.”

While he did acknowledge a staffing shortage and concerns about a lack of patient beds, he said he did not think those issues could be fixed with a move. Instead, he feared that commissioning a study on moving the state hospital would create an even more serious staffing problem, scaring longtime employees into to finding other jobs and making prospective employees think twice about moving to Provo.

In DHHS’s Friday statement, the department said the hospital is “not currently experiencing a serious staffing shortage,” although challenges remain, and it expects that moving to a dispersed model would “impact the current entry-level staff who are critical in caring for Utah State Hospital patients and live close to the Hospital campus.”

The department’s statement added: “Though it is unclear how availability of staff would change if the state moved to a dispersed model, there will need to be a clear plan to ensure any future locations are sufficiently staffed.”

HB299′s other proposals

In addition to moving the state hospital, Clancy’s bill would require officials to collect data to determine the number of Utahns with mental illness, including those who have been civilly committed and those who could benefit from, but are not receiving, mental health care or support — and projections for how those populations will grow.

The study would also look at funding or service gaps, models to bridge these gaps and the effectiveness of current systems. All that information would culminate in a final report submitted before the end of 2025 that outlines “a comprehensive, multi-year plan with goals, objectives, and measurable outcomes to address any gaps identified in the study.”

DHHS and the Utah Hospital Association recently released a a similar report with the help of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. It analyzed the state’s mental health needs and proposed a guide for reform. The Utah Behavioral Health Master Plan will be used to “create a more accessible and effective mental health system and substance use disorder system in our state,” DHHS said.

Additionally, Clancy’s bill seeks to clarify the civil commitment statute and change how patients civilly committed at the state hospital are discharged, including notifying the patient’s primary care provider and the law enforcement officer who committed them, documenting why the person was admitted and is being discharged and giving them a safety plan and available resources to use moving forward.

Clancy said the discharge element of the bill came from discussions with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah and the Disability Law Center and learning that “we discharge a lot of people from the state hospital into homelessness.”

“It’s giving them a packet, kind of a one-stop-shop packet,” Clancy said, “that can help them make the transition back to self-sufficiency, whatever that looks like for them.”