Local psychiatric hospital plan may have the edge

From the editorial board

Of two proposals to build a psychiatric hospital, the one by a local alliance would be located on the Allenmore Medical Center campus.
Of two proposals to build a psychiatric hospital, the one by a local alliance would be located on the Allenmore Medical Center campus. Staff file, 2013

Backers of two competing proposals to build a psychiatric hospital in Tacoma quarrel with each other’s plans, but they agree on one thing: the dire need for that hospital. So does everyone close to the problem.

State health statistics show that Pierce County has only 23 psychiatric unit beds for a population of 700,000. It should have about 160 beds, according to a state Department of Health formula.

The gap in need and reality is being filled in ways that don’t help: jailing the sick and the practice of psychiatric boarding in regular hospitals (which the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2014). If untreated, severely mentally ill people are more likely to be homeless, living in conditions that put them at risk of sickness, committing crime and being victims of crime. Families unable to find mental health care here often must travel to Seattle for it.

The same Department of Health that came up with the formula for how many beds a county needs is also reviewing the competing proposals to determine whether one or both will be allowed to build a new mental health hospital. So presumably it will find that the need exists. But who will get to fill it? One of them or both?

The DOH is supposed to make its decision next month – after about a year of study. That should be more than enough time.

If local connections have any pull with the DOH, the Alliance for South Sound Health is perfectly positioned. A partnership between the two biggest health care providers in Pierce County – MultiCare and CHI Franciscan health systems – the Alliance has a who’s who of Pierce County’s heavy hitters on board, including co-chairmen Brad Cheney and Bill Weyerhaeuser, Murray Pacific CEO Toby Murray, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, developer Herb Simon, state Sen. Bruce Dammeier and Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Pierson.

Both the Alliance and the competing out-of-state bidder, Signature Healthcare Services, propose building a facility with at least 120 beds. The costs are similar ($40.6 million for Alliance, $42.6 million for Signature).

Each proposal has pros and cons.

The Alliance points to its ability to seamlessly provide a continuum of care for mental health patients who often also suffer from physical ailments. Signature, which operates mental health facilities elsewhere, cites its track record of care in that field. Signature would finance its facility from mostly private sources, while the Alliance would also tap state funds and private donations.

As for their sites, the Alliance’s proposed location on the Allenmore medical campus is already zoned for medical use – but would require razing an existing structure. Signature’s proposed site is largely vacant but would need zoning changes and environmental study that could delay construction.

That’s not a small consideration. Pierce County needs those beds now, and even an ambitious projection for bringing a new hospital online puts it three years out.

We’re not in the business of assessing proposals for medical facilities, but a cursory look at the two bids seems to favor the local one, especially if it can move more quickly toward completion.

But the need for psychiatric treatment might be so great in Pierce County that DOH ends up approving both proposals. If both have merit, DOH would certainly be justified in going that route.