Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: City Council must weigh residents’ worries, local mental health needs

Like most places, Sacramento definitely needs more mental health services. But there are reasons to be wary about the proposal before the City Council tonight for a 120-bed private psychiatric hospital.

It’s not only the loud objections lodged by residents in Woodlake, who oppose the bid by Signature Healthcare Services to build the facility on vacant land across Highway 160 from their north Sacramento neighborhood. There are also concerns about where low-income patients will get psychiatric care and how much local taxpayers will be billed. To do their due diligence, council members need to weigh all these issues.

The proposed hospital would cater mostly to patients who have private insurance and can afford high-end inpatient treatment for mental health and drug and alcohol abuse. County mental health officials oppose the plan. They say that Sacramento already has three similar private hospitals. More than than one-third of patients in these private facilities come from outside the county.

What’s needed, the county says, are more psychiatric beds for the needy who are eligible for federal reimbursement under Medi-Cal. Federal money can cover nearly half the $950-a-day cost when the county places Medi-Cal patients in an eligible private hospital; the proposed Signature Healthcare facility would not be eligible.

After budget cuts in 2009 forced the county to close its crisis unit and slash its treatment beds in half, it signed contracts with the three private hospitals (Heritage Oaks Hospital, Sierra Vista Hospital and Sutter Center for Psychiatry) to treat some indigent patients for free in return for higher county payments.

The county wants the same deal with Signature Healthcare. The company is prepared to sign such an agreement, says Gregory Thatch, its local attorney for the permit. Good – there should be a level playing field for all the private facilities.

The county also wants Signature Healthcare to guarantee transportation and continued care to patients when they are released, and to provide at least $25,000 a year to help clean up the American River Parkway near the site; so far, the company has agreed only to assist volunteer efforts.

City planning officials, who are recommending approval of the project, say the conditions sought by the county on the permit “fall outside the city’s land-use authority over this project.”

City officials, however, have come up with conditions to allay residents’ worries about public safety. Signature Healthcare would provide 24-hour security at the hospital site. It is also offering to provide private security patrols twice a day in the neighborhood and to pay for a $1,000 city permit that would allow armed guards to go into the city park.

Neighborhood leader Tom Powell calls the offer “obscene.” He told The Bee’s editorial board on Monday that the neighborhood doesn’t want private security patrols, which he fears could create a Trayvon Martin situation.

Residents also assert that Signature Healthcare – which owns and operates eight hospitals in California, Arizona, Illinois and Texas – has a spotty record, including federal fines and a pending lawsuit alleging fraudulent Medicaid and Medicare billing at its Pasadena facility.

This decision is not a straightforward rezoning. Council members should consider not only whether this proposal is a good fit for Woodlake, but also whether it addresses the county’s broader mental health needs.