Medi-Cal, environmental concerns dog north Sacramento psychiatric hospital project

Feeling a full-court press from their constituents, Sacramento City Council members Steve Cohn and Allen Warren booted a contentious land use vote initially set for Tuesday on a psychiatric hospital proposed in north Sacramento.

Rather than make the call on whether Signature Healthcare Services LLC should be able to add a ninth mental health facility to its nationwide portfolio, Cohn said in an email to his third-district residents that significant community input and the applicant’s desire to add conditions necessitated a delay to November 12.

“I wanted to inform you that I have requested a continuance of the Council hearing date for the proposed Behavioral Healthcare Hospital for two weeks in order to allow further time for community feedback and outreach,” Cohn wrote in the email.

He added that Signature, a mental health hospital chain with multiple California locations, was also seeking to allay the fears of a nearby neighborhood that there wouldn’t be enough security at the proposed facility, a 120-bed acute care hospital.

While residents of the middle-class neighborhood, Woodlake, may be concerned about escaped patients, other questions loom about what kind of operation Signature runs.

Company representatives were a surprising no-show at a neighborhood forum Wednesday evening, when they were expected to defend plans to construct a private facility that would cater mostly to the fully insured.

More than 50 Woodlake residents attended the meeting at their clubhouse, organized by Warren, who represents their district.

Resident Mike Acosta said boos met the announcement that the mental health franchise made a last-minute cancellation. Officials with the city’s planning and police departments filled in as best they could, but were unable to answer some of the thornier questions regarding Signature’s track record, Acosta added.

The company, which operates as Aurora Behavioral Health Care, has eight in-patient psychiatric hospitals scattered throughout California, Arizona and Illinois. It used to have two more a decade ago in Michigan, but shuttered them due to financial and regulatory issues.

Lawsuits and fines have also dogged several of the facilities here in California, primarily a Pasadena hospital where eight patients died and several rapes occurred, according to a legal complaint filed by the United States government. A trial is tentatively set for April.

The California Department of Public Health’s licensing and certification division issued the company’s San Diego facility an administrative penalty last year, although the nature of the violation was sealed.

The company wants to build a ninth facility on a 7-acre commercial lot south buffering Expo Parkway, about 1,500 feet south of the Woodlake neighborhood.

The company’s real estate attorney, Ryan Hooper, said the project’s construction would “dump” $25 million into the local economy, and add nearly 200 well-paying jobs that could help sop up some of the community’s residential vacancies.

But nervous residents aren’t the only ones who are doubtful.

The county’s public health and human services director appeared Wednesday night to outline multiple concerns with the project. Sherri Heller said this part of Sacramento was already over-crowded with inpatient psychiatric beds for the fully insured, and that the real need was for beds that could admit lower-income Medi-Cal recipients, a population Signature doesn’t serve.

According to the California Hospital Association, Signature’s brand of care is needed in the rural perimeter areas of northern California, where few if any mental health resources exist.

As for the acute care beds that already exist locally, Heller said they’re serving an increasingly out-of-county population that ends up staying once released. Success rates drop for patients when their families aren’t nearby and participating in their care, Heller added.

Resident Thomas Powell cited other concerns.

The parcel is one of the few undeveloped tracts left in the city that abuts the American Rive Parkway, connecting to the riparian habitat of Woodlake Creek, he said.

This hospital will create a plume of toxic pharmaceutical drug contamination in our water table and that likelihood is completely ignored by [the city’s environmental services department],” he added.

None of this may factor into an upcoming Sacramento City Council hearing on November 12, when elected officials are expected to decide a rezoning request that stands as the last regulatory hurdle facing Signature Healthcare Services.

Officials said basing a decision on issues not tied to land use entitlements could open the city up to legal challenges.

“We do not get into background, history, that kind of thing,” said senior planner Lindsey Alagozian.

The overriding question is this: Is a particular land use appropriate given its surroundings? If it is, the project gets approved, no matter the reputation of the company pitching it.

The very last piece of the puzzle belongs to the county, which has to sign off on the hospital’s authority to evaluate patients for involuntary commitments. But even with Heller’s concerns, it could prove difficult for the county to upend the project at that far point.

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