Property owners and developers Harvey and Melanie Billig of Carmel have selected Vizion Health LLC, a new company headquartered in North Carolina led by founder and CEO Mark Schneider, to run their proposed psychiatric hospital in Templeton.
Supporters and opponents of the project have questioned that choice because Vizion (pronounced “vision”) is new, but the Billigs say they hand-picked Schneider for his 42-year background in the mental health industry and his executive experience, which has involved leadership roles in established health care companies as well as forming his own startup firms.
“Mark’s approach is not like the biggies in the country but a very local approach,” Melanie
Billig said. “Harvey and I don’t want a larger corporation — not cookie-cutter like everything else in the country but something that fits the need for SLO County. We tried to find an operator who cares about something like that.”
Vizion Health, first incorporated in 2011 in Louisiana, where Schneider lives, doesn’t have any clients yet, Schneider confirmed.
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However, he said the company is in talks to run several existing health care facilities in the United States. Those talks include letters of intent to buy, operate or lease the health care properties. Schneider declined to disclose specifics on those deals, including their locations or what they plan to do with them, because he’s under confidentiality contracts until the negotiations close.
On Oct. 5, the company filed incorporation papers in Oklahoma. It also intends to incorporate in California to operate the Templeton hospital, Schneider said.
The Billigs say the current plan is for them to be the developer and owner; Vizion will lease the property for an undisclosed sum.
“Sometimes you own the land, the building, and sell it to real estate investment trusts, but we’re still talking, and there are a number of options,” Melanie Billig said. “We might sell the property. But Vizion is going to lease the building and run the business. They (don’t own) the property and have stated that they don’t want to.”
Schneider said the idea of Vizion owning the Templeton project isn’t completely off the table but is not the plan now.
A closer look at Vizion
Vizion Health LLC is run by four partners based out of an office in Charlotte, N.C.
Aside from those four, Vizion doesn’t have any employees or clients yet, Schneider said, but it’s looking to develop staffing as it acquires facilities to operate.
The firm isn’t incorporated in North Carolina but chose Charlotte for its office because two of the partners live in that city, Schneider said.
Schneider’s three partners are Chief Operating Officer Stephen Chesney and Chief Financial Officer Aaron Kneas, both of whom live in Charlotte, and Chief Development Officer
Dr. Ann Miller of Thornton, Pa.
Those four names are also listed on the Louisiana incorporation papers.
The Templeton psychiatric hospital is the first newly constructed project the firm has pursued.
“This is going to be so much better because it will be customized as a new psychiatric facility,” Schneider, 68, said of the Templeton proposal. “A lot of psychiatric hospitals are either very old or small rural medical surgical hospitals that were repurposed.”
Schneider, a New Orleans resident, earned a master’s degree in psychiatric and mental health nursing from the University of Florida in 1974 and a bachelor’s degree in medicine from the same university in 1973.
“But I’ve always taken the administrative tracks at work,” he said.
He has a history of owning or serving in executive roles at a number of behavioral health facilities, most recently for AmiCare Behavioral Centers in Madison, Tenn., serving as the company’s chief operating officer from 2006 to 2011.
From 1976 to 1991, he was an executive with National Medical Enterprises, the precursor to Tenet Healthcare. NME in the 1990s was accused of patient fraud and ultimately settled a $380 million lawsuit with the federal government and 28 states.
“I was absolutely not involved whatsoever,” Schneider said of the lawsuit. “I was never questioned, convicted, indicted for that — I was completely out of that mess.”
At National Medical Enterprises or its subsidiaries, he worked in several executive roles at its hospitals.
Schneider later founded two startup companies in the psychiatric and chemical dependency fields, both headquartered in Tennessee. Those companies were Lighthouse Care Centers LLC, which operated six facilities in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida (based in Chattanooga, Tenn.); and AmiCare Behavioral Centers LLC, which operated six facilities in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri (based in Madison, Tenn.).
Melanie Billig said she and her husband have known Schneider for several years.
“This project didn’t happen overnight,” she said, adding that it has taken about five to seven years of planning. After talking with Schneider, they decided their medical care outlooks aligned and then began formalizing their plans.
In 2013, Schneider said he started doing market research for the Billigs’ Templeton proposal.
Templeton resident Murray Powell, who has publicly criticized the size and location of the proposed psychiatric hospital, said he’s skeptical of the firm.
Powell and his peers say the company’s website, www.vizionhealth.com, is misleading.
“It describes its operations as a mental health entity and shows photos of happy patients and a happy staff. None of that exist,” Powell said.
Although Schneider has said Vizion Health LLC has no employees, the website refers to a staff that includes board-certified/board-eligible psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, psychologists and therapists who “round out our multi-disciplinary team.”
The website lists Vizion Health’s services as psychiatric hospital and residential treatment management, chemical dependency program management, and hospital design and operations consultation as though the new company has a history of providing such services.
An endorsement in a “Testimonials” section praises “the team of professionals at Vizion Health.”
Schneider said the reviewer was talking about the partners’ collective work experience as individuals.
Other aspects of the website are muddy.
As of Oct. 13, the website listed no phone number and the address as 950 Highway 98 E., Suite 7052, Destin, FL 32541.
The Florida address is a beachfront condo in the Shoreline Towers East development by Regency Towers, according to a property search on the Okaloosa County Tax Collector’s website.
The condo is owned by Mark Schneider, et al., records show.
Schneider confirmed that the condo is a residential unit where the Vizion partners met early on, before moving to the current North Carolina office. The company is not incorporated in Florida, according to the state’s records.
Schneider said the company hasn’t put much effort into its website but wanted to get something online.
“There was no Internet back when I started, so maybe people are looking for something to pick out. But we’re not looking for business through the website,” he said.
The Templeton hospital, should it be approved, would have its own comprehensive website that Schneider said the company would put more energy into.
Harvey and Melanie Billig have owned the Templeton parcel since 1989. They’ve wanted to develop several projects on it over the years: a physical rehabilitation center discussed in the 1990s and, later, a 192-bed assisted-living facility. Plans for the latter were approved by the county in 2007 but abandoned five years later because of financing and demand issues, the couple said.
Harvey Billig, 73, is a retired ophthalmologist. He and his wife, Melanie, 72, moved from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo County around 1973, when Harvey Billig became head of the eye program at French Hospital Medical Clinic, which no longer exists.
He later started his own practice in the North County.
Melanie Billig, a former teacher, immersed herself in the county’s volunteerism circles in the 1970s and ’80s. In the early 1980s, she served on the San Luis Obispo City Council and, a year later, became the city’s mayor from 1981 to 1985.
In addition to his medical career, Harvey Billig also developed medical properties. In the 1980s and ’90s, he founded and was general partner at the North County Outpatient Surgery Center across the street from Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, eventually selling it to Tenet Healthcare, which later closed the center.
In 2010, he co-developed a medical complex for the nonprofit Community Health Centers on Posada Lane in Templeton.The Billigs still own the land and buildings, which they lease to CHC.
Elsewhere, he developed the Santa Barbara Surgical Center and Health Park Hospital in Arkansas when he was chairman of Medical Malls Inc.
The Billigs estimate the psychiatric hospital, plus a proposed memory care facility on the property, would cost about $65 million, which they intend to finance using their own money and bank loans.
They intend to use local workers to build their facilities; Larry Wysong of Wysong Construction in Atascadero is already on board as the contractor.
The Billigs say that, even though they’ve retired to Carmel, they still have roots in San Luis Obispo County.
“I’m not really this super, out-of-town guy,” Harvey Billig said, with his wife adding, “We’re not fly-by-the-night kind of people.”
On Dec. 10, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission will consider the Templeton proposal: a 91-bed psychiatric hospital and 55- to 60-bed memory care facility at 1155 Tablas Road in Templeton.
The commission’s decision could then be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.
The psychiatric hospital also must be approved by state licensing authorities and obtain federal Medicare and Medicaid certification before it can open.