Proposed state mental health facility near WSU Vancouver receives important approval

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

A government-run behavioral health treatment center recently received approval to proceed with construction on a property near Washington State University Vancouver.

The facility is one of two in the state that will implement a new treatment paradigm aimed at reducing the burden on Washington’s existing psychiatric hospitals.

In a July 19 decision, a county hearing examiner signed the approval of a conditional occupancy permit for the three-building, 48-bed facility. The center will be located on approximately 12 acres at 16015 NE 50th Ave.

Although the hearing reviewer’s decision was signed on July 19, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) had to await possible appeals in Clark County Superior Court before proceeding with the project, DSHS media relations manager Tyler Hemstreet said . This time window expired on August 10th and the project could be continued.

The facility would be the second of its kind in the state, Hemstreet said. The department is expected to open a 16-bed facility of a similar design in Rochester in January.

The Rochester facility will be operated entirely by DSHS, while the Clark County facility will operate one building by the department and the other two by the Washington State Health Care Authority, another government agency.

“This is a new way of treating general behavioral health with smaller, community-based facilities rather than in the larger state hospitals,” Hemstreet said.

During one of two sessions for the hearing reviewer on June 16, DSHS Community Transitional Director Jenise Gogan stated that those at the facility would be those who would be involuntarily sentenced to 90 or 180 days through civil lawsuits. In some cases, the detainees were individuals whose criminal defense attorneys requested a shorter-term competency assessment, even though they could end up being housed on-site for months.

Those who would enter the facility after criminal involvement would have to meet civil obligation criteria. Gogan said the criteria are based on self-harm, danger to others or “serious disability”. The latter is based on whether a person is able to take care of themselves while maintaining security.

The facility’s goal is to reduce waiting lists for people who are still in the court system and need to receive treatment from places like Western State Hospital following the Trueblood State Supreme Court’s decision, Hemstreet said. The state will be fined by the court for those defendants who cannot be placed in nursing facilities.

State hospitals will continue to house the “most demanding patients,” while those at the Clark County facility will be civil-obligated, Hemstreet said. DSHS has received backlash and comparisons with facilities operated by the State Department of Corrections.

“As far as zoning goes, it’s not a correctional facility,” Hemstreet said. “These are patients. They are not prisoners.”

Hemstreet said it wasn’t fair to compare the facility to existing facilities like Western State Hospital. Those at the Clark County facility will be out of the court system and will be cared for by staff trained in de-escalation. No patient is allowed to leave the facility unaccompanied.

“The patients that are going to be there will have the support around them … psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses,” Hemstreet said.

Hemstreet noted that Western State has coexisted with Steilacoom High School next door for years. He said the department is developing a community notification system for the Clark County facility about possible escapes.

“I think some of the fears are a little bit unfounded,” Hemstreet said.

While he couldn’t ensure no one would escape from the facility, he said they would not pose a threat to nearby residents and schools.

“This isn’t just a copy of Western State. This is a completely different model and we’re excited about it,” said Hemstreet.

The facility received a number of environmental impact assessment appeals from local residents, which the hearing examiner eventually dismissed. Because there hadn’t been new construction in years, the DSHS didn’t have a process for SEPA appeals, so they brought in the county as a co-lead, Hemstreet said. This drew the ire of some parishioners.

During the June hearing, one of the complainants against the facility’s approval and Clark County Council nominee Don Benton said Clark County Council was notified that a co-lead agreement the county had with DSHS had been approved was to allow an appeal process and not to actively support the project.

“It seems like all government agencies are banding together against the citizens, and it doesn’t seem entirely fair,” Benton said at the hearing.

Once approved, the DSHS still has steps to take before the facility opens its doors. Hemstreet said the department is working with the health authority to work out how to operate.

The department also intends to put together a board of local officials who will meet regularly on the operation of the facility to build relationships with the community, he said. The DSHS submits a building permit application to the district and receives an updated cost estimate.

Completion of the facility is expected to be in the fall of 2024, with the DSHS-operated building opening in December and the Health Authority buildings in March 2025, Hemstreet said.

Comments are closed.