The Latest Challenge in Addressing the County’s Mental Health Crisis: Neighborhood Opposition - Voice of San Diego

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The Latest Challenge in Addressing the County’s Mental Health Crisis: Neighborhood Opposition

Residents and community leaders are already raising concerns about plans to open facilities to treat mental health patients, hinting at the likelihood of similar scenarios as proposals move forward countywide.

Acadia Healthcare and Scripps Health hope to build a 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

There’s a looming hurdle to county leaders’ plans to open new psychiatric facilities across the region: their own constituents.

This summer, county supervisors signed off on a plan to establish a countywide network of walk-in crisis units for patients who need urgent psychiatric care and also signaled they’d like to open regional behavioral health hubs. Meanwhile, a handful of hospitals hope to build new facilities from Oceanside to Chula Vista, proposals likely to trigger public review processes.

Residents and community leaders are already raising concerns as initial details on two projects emerge, hinting at the likelihood of similar scenarios as proposals move forward countywide.

A Change.org petition opposing a 120-bed psychiatric hospital in Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood has amassed more than 3,960 signatures since residents became aware of the new facility being pushed by Tennessee-based for-profit Acadia Healthcare and San Diego-based Scripps Health.

Acadia and Scripps are holding a community meeting later this month to brief residents on their plans and try to ease concerns.

In Vista, where county officials hope to add 24-hour crisis stabilization services to an existing county-funded walk-in facility operated by Exodus Recovery, the city’s elected leaders are proceeding cautiously and asking lots of questions.

“I think the county knows they have some challenges to overcome to win the city’s approval for this,” Vista Deputy Mayor John Franklin said.

In recent weeks, County Supervisor Jim Desmond has accompanied Vista City Council members on tours of the existing Exodus facility and has looped in Sheriff Bill Gore to help tackle public safety questions.

Desmond is also pledging to ensure the Vista facility isn’t the only one like it in North County.

“It’s gonna take some assurances from law enforcement and the county on how it’s gonna be operated, Desmond said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer every time we talk.”

Desmond and other county officials are bracing for more tough conversations with community leaders across the region.

Fellow North County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar made a call to action to elected officials before voting to approve the plan to establish crisis units.

“If we are to truly evolve the entire system, it suggests that all communities need these services because in every community, there are people in need of these services. We can manage their chronic illness, or we can wait in all of these cities for them to hit that point of vulnerability or crisis. Choose,” Gaspar said at the June 25 hearing. “So, to our City Council members that are in charge of the very municipalities where these services need to be located, we need you on our team.”

Underscoring the potential challenges to come, the opposition to a Scripps-backed partnership to deliver inpatient psychiatric beds in Chula Vista mushroomed before a formal proposal was even submitted to the city.

Scripps has said Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest is one of several hospitals in the region that must be replaced in coming years to comply with state seismic regulations.

Rather than commit to another 36-bed psychiatric unit in Hillcrest, Scripps announced in February that it would partner with Acadia to build a larger 120-bed facility in an Eastlake cul-de-sac flanked by a business center that houses a Montessori academy and a trampoline park. Scripps and Acadia hope to open their new facility in 2023 and plan to serve teens, adults and seniors.

Acadia, which is poised to hold an 80 percent share in the partnership, is now under contract to purchase the 10.5-acre plot in Chula Vista and the partnership group known as Eastlake Behavioral Health LLC has submitted a permit application to the city.

Scripps has described the arrangement as a win for the region and South Bay.

“It adds capacity to the San Diego region that has a limited number of psychiatric inpatient beds,” said Dr. Jerry Gold, administrator of behavioral health for Scripps.

But when nearby residents learned about the project, they immediately pushed back.

“I think it’s well-intentioned and poorly planned,” Eastlake resident Ian Burgar said.

Burgar and others have since spent hours researching Acadia, digging up news reports uncovering allegations of abuse and safety issues. Those news stories and the group’s concerns about how the project might impact nearby schools and businesses now feature prominently in the petition against the proposed Eastlake hospital.

They have also seized on county behavioral health director Luke Bergmann’s comment to the San Diego Union-Tribune that a stand-alone hospital miles away from other care options is not ideal.

“It’s not accessible. There’s not continuing care. It’s not co-located,” Burgar said. “There’s not police presence a facility like this will probably require and (Acadia) is a nightmare.”

Gold said Scripps opted to pursue the partnership due to Acadia’s experience operating hundreds of other behavioral health facilities across the world, and its work with other providers.

“Scripps took the initiative to investigate the concerns and felt they were a partner with the expertise that would make it a positive partnership,” Gold said.

Gold said Scripps’ 20 percent stake ensures it will have oversight over the facility’s operations and that the hospital will collaborate with other health care providers in the region.

In a statement, Acadia defended its track record, noting that its “aggregate rate of grave and serious incidents is extremely small” and that its facilities strictly adhere to federal and accreditation standards.

The company said it is planning to incorporate a number of security measures in the Chula Vista project, including 24-hour security and perimeter fencing and landscaping to provide an additional barrier between the facility and the neighborhood.

Acadia said it may also consider minor adjustments to the project as it gathers input from residents and city officials.

Chula Vista City Councilman John McCann, who represents the Eastlake area, said he encouraged Acadia and Scripps to host the community meeting later this month to explain their plans and get residents’ input.

“I’m hoping that we can all work together to find solutions that the community can be in favor of,” McCann said.

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