Sacramento City Council to vote on psychiatric hospital tonight

Despite mounting concerns from public health officials and neighboring residents, a proposal to build a 120-bed private psychiatric hospital in north Sacramento could experience clear skies this evening before the Sacramento City Council.

That’s because elected officials may take a narrow view of their role—they’re not deciding whether embattled psychiatric chain Signature Healthcare Services LLC, with its lawsuits and fines and failed hospitals, would be a good steward for this project; they’re evaluating the appropriateness of a cubic lot with nothing on it.

In other words, tonight’s anticipated—and twice-punted—vote could come down to land use, not who’s using the land.

“The user doesn’t have an influence on our decision,” senior planner Lindsey Alagozian said in relation to the city’s planning process. “We do not get into background [of the company], history, that kind of thing.”

Doing so could open open the city up to legal challenges, she added.

Which could be good news for Signature and the interests who expect the private facility to plop $25 million into the local economy, and bad news for the residents of the nearby Woodlake neighborhood, public health officials in Sacramento County and American River Parkway advocates, all of whom have rang alarms.

If the city had looked into who was fronting this project, it would have discovered a company with a tainted past and ongoing legal troubles. Signature, which operates as Aurora Behavioral Health Care, currently has eight hospitals in four states. A decade ago, it had two more.

The company closed two Detroit-area hospitals in 2000 and 2002 amid claims that they ran afoul of IRS and state health-care regulators, among other troubles. A Detroit Metro Times investigation in 2003 documented allegations that the practices inflated Medicare payments by extending patient stays and hospitalizing those without proper documentation, which is also being argued in court down south.

Signature’s facility in Pasadena is the subject of a federal lawsuit charging fraudulent billings and poor management that contributed to the deaths of eight patients and multiple rapes.

Last year, the California Department of Public Health’s licensing and certification division issued Sierra’s San Diego hospital an administrative penalty. The nature of the violation remains sealed.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services fined Signature $104,747 for employing someone who “was excluded from participation in Federal health care programs.”

In 2009, Signature paid a $350,000 settlement to Michigan state health officials following allegations that the company burned patient records at three hospitals.

Meanwhile, local health officials say the hospital is unnecessary in a county with three private inpatient facilities largely filled with out-of-county residents. The real need, according to public health and human services director Sherri Heller, is for psychiatric beds that will admit those who aren’t privately insured, like Medi-Cal recipients. The proposed psychiatric hospital on Expo Parkway wouldn’t accept such patients.

With all these competing points of view, tonight’s vote promises to be a barnstormer.

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