Proposed state mental health facility near WSU Vancouver receives key approval

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

A state-run behavioral health treatment center recently secured the approval to move forward with construction on land near Washington State University Vancouver.

The facility is one of two in the state that will implement a new paradigm of treatment intended to reduce the load on Washington’s existing mental health hospitals.

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

Though the hearing examiner’s decision was signed on July 19, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) had to wait for any potential appeals in Clark County Superior Court before it could move forward with the project, DSHS Media Relations Manager Tyler Hemstreet said. By Aug. 10, that window had passed and the project was allowed to continue.

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

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

“This is a new way of treating overall behavioral health with smaller, community-based facilities, and not in the larger state hospitals,” Hemstreet said.

During one of two meetings for the hearing examiner on June 16, DSHS Community Transition Director Jenise Gogan explained those at the facility would be individuals who are involuntarily committed by civil action for 90 or 180 days. In some cases, those detained would be individuals whose defense attorneys in criminal cases sought a competency evaluation on a shorter timeline, though they could end up being housed at the location for monthslong stays.

Those who would enter the facility after criminal involvement would have to meet civil commitment criteria. Gogan said that criteria is based on danger to self, danger to others or “grave disability.” The latter is based on whether an individual is deemed able to take care of themself while maintaining safety.

The goal of the facility is to cut down on waitlists for individuals still in the court system who are required to receive treatment from places like Western State Hospital following the Trueblood state supreme court decision, Hemstreet said. The state is fined by the court for those defendants who are unable to be placed in care facilities.

The state hospitals will continue to house the “most challenging patients” while those at the Clark County facility will be civilly committed, Hemstreet said. DSHS has received pushback and comparisons to facilities operated by the state department of corrections.

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

Hemstreet said it wasn’t fair to compare the facility to existing facilities like Western State Hospital. Those at the Clark County facility will not be in the court system, and will be attended to by staff trained in de-escalation. No patients will be able to leave the facility without an escort.

“The patients that are going to be there, they’re going to have the supports around them … psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses,” Hemstreet said.

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

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

Although he couldn’t ensure someone wouldn’t escape from the facility, he said they wouldn’t be a threat to nearby residents and schools.

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

The facility received a number of environmental review appeals from residents, which the hearing examiner ultimately denied. Due to a lack of new construction in years, DSHS did not have a process for SEPA appeals, so they brought into the county as a co-lead, Hemstreet said. That drew ire from some of the community members.

During the June hearing, one of the appellants against the facility’s permitting and Clark County Council candidate Don Benton said the Clark County Council was told a co-lead agreement the county made with DSHS was approved to allow for an appeal process and not to actively support the project.

“It seems like all the government agencies are teaming up against the citizens, and it doesn’t seem to be quite fair,” Benton said at the hearing.

Following the approval, DSHS still has steps to take before the facility opens its doors. Hemstreet said the department is in the process of working out how to operate in concert with the Health Care Authority.

The department is also looking to put together a board of local officials who will meet regularly about facility operations in order to build community relations, he said. DSHS will submit a building permit application to the county and will get an updated cost estimate.

Completion for the facility will likely be in the fall of 2024, with the DSHS-ran building opening that December and the Health Care Authority buildings in March of 2025, Hemstreet said.