Tri-City Medical Center to 'suspend' psych unit

OCEANSIDE, Calif. (KGTV) -- In a 5-2 vote Tuesday night, the Tri-City Medical Center's board of directors voted to suspend, indefinitely, care in its inpatient behavioral health unit. 

The Tri-City Healthcare District has operated a Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) for a number of years and a Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) since 2016. The CSU is already closed. According to an administrative staff report, the BHU averages roughly 12 patients per day.

The unit provides critical care to a vulnerable population those who are suicidal or suffering from severe mental illness, but the board says keeping it open without making the required building changes could put those patients at greater risk. 

Tuesday night the Tri-City Healthcare District cited changes in federal regulations as one of the main reasons they will need to suspend services. Those regulations require hospitals to remove all "ligature" risks from rooms - or features that patients could use to hang themselves. 

The board said that the hospital's "drop" ceilings do not meet the requirements. At least one estimate put the cost to replace the ceilings at $3 million dollars.

Upgrading the ceilings is one item on a list of costly projects, a spokesperson for Tri-City Medical Center told 10News.  The overall renovation project will cost $7.5 million, which include updates to the HVAC system and making other upgrades to the facility to meet current ADA requirements.

The board also says there's a shortage of psychiatrists and a budget shortfall in that ward of roughly $5 million. The COO says the move protects the entire hospital from possibly having to close.

"That is a reason, that is one of the issues that we are facing, lack of psychiatric care for those patients," said Hospital COO Scott Livingstone. "The patients made our argument for us," said Livingstone referring to a patient recently saying she waited 48 hours to be seen.

Livingstone went on to say, "You're concerned about a 45 minute drive for a mental health crisis, try a 45 minute drive if you're actively having a stroke and your brain is dying."

As the energy in the room grew tense, the board reminded the public that suspending the unit gives the hospital the option to re-open it if a solution is found.

The suspension, which could last up to one year, means that any North County residents or "5150 transports"  will be sent to hospitals much farther away. 

Police and sheriff's deputies say the added time it will take to transport "5150 transports" - or psychiatric patients - to Palomar Hospital in Escondido or San Diego County Mental Health will impact every neighborhood. 

"With the closure of your facility that will increase probably three to five hours, that's an officer off the street in your city- do you want that?" said La Mesa Police Captain Ray Sweeney.

Captain Sweeny told the board roughly one in five adults experiences mental illness each year.

A man who battles severe mental illness told the board that the psych unit at Tri-City has saved him countless times. 

"When I get to the hospital everything changes," he said. "From the moment the first nurse touches my arm, I feel like I'm being touched by an angel."  

Some doctors spoke in favor of the move; saying the entire staff supports the decision to suspend the psych ward, but increase outpatient services.

The unit is scheduled to close on October 2, 2018.

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