Plan for mental hospital in Templeton would fill a void in county

Here's an architectural rendering of a mental health hospital proposed for Templeton.
Here's an architectural rendering of a mental health hospital proposed for Templeton. Courtesy of Hochhauser Blatter Architecture and Planning

No one — or more specifically, no one who’s weighed in — disagrees that San Luis Obispo County needs more beds for patients with mental illness. The county Psychiatric Health Facility near the former General Hospital has only 16 beds, which is far fewer than the 136 recommended for our county under California Hospital Association guidelines.

Former San Luis Obispo Mayor Melanie Billig and her husband, Dr. Harvey Billig, are proposing to help fill the gap with a private, 91-bed behavioral health facility in Templeton. The hospital would serve children, adolescents, adults — including veterans — and the elderly.

The application will go first to the county Planning Commission and, if the commission’s decision is appealed, to the Board of Supervisors.

We believe the project is one the county desperately needs.

Providing more beds in San Luis Obispo County would be a service both to individuals dealing with mental illness, as well as to families that are stuck traveling long distances to visit loved ones in out-of-area hospitals, or are trying to patch together an outpatient treatment plan as best they can.

We also believe the proposed location in Templeton is a good one. This is not in the middle of a residential neighborhood; the Las Tablas Road area where the facility would be located is zoned for medical facilities and is surrounded by other medical providers, including Twin Cities Hospital, a radiology center, an endoscopy center, a surgical center and medical offices.

Templeton has, in fact, become a medical hub that draws patients from throughout the county — and that hasn’t seemed to bother residents.

We haven’t, for instance, heard complaints about residents traveling to Templeton to see, say, a dermatologist. Yet fears surrounding a mental health facility remain, no doubt kept alive by reports of the horrific crimes — including several in our own county — committed by people with a history of mental illness.

That sad legacy, though, is the best argument in favor of a behavioral health facility like the one proposed in Templeton. The public is at far greater risk from patients who go untreated than from individuals who receive appropriate medical care.

Some members of the Templeton community, though, remain leery; the Templeton Area Advisory Council unanimously opposed the project at its November meeting.

Several concerns have been raised. Among them: traffic; water; the fact that the proposed operator, Vizion Health LLC is from out of state; and the for-profit nature of the facility. The biggest worry, though, appears to be a perceived danger to Templeton residents.

The hospital would accept only patients who enter voluntarily, and project opponents fear those patients would be free to walk away at any time — thereby posing a risk to the community.

It may be tempting to pass this off as a concern concocted by a bunch of raving NIMBYs. Yet all it takes is a quick Goggle search to turn up several cases of “walkaways” from mental health facilities, along with headlines like this one from a 2012 Santa Rosa Press Democrat report: “County mental health facility facing ‘walkaway’ problem.”

Concerning? Yes.

But it’s important to look beyond the headlines to determine whether it’s accurate to compare those facilities to the one proposed for Templeton.

The Press-Democrat story, for example, documented problems at a county-run facility, the Charles M. Norton Center, that accepted voluntary patients, as well as patients whom authorities had found to be potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

The Templeton hospital would not accept violent or overly aggressive patients. Nor would it accept patients referred by courts, police or other authorities — those individuals would continue to be treated at the county hospital.

As for patients simply walking out the front door, that’s highly unlikely. While this would not be a “locked” facility like Atascadero State Hospital, it would be secure and well monitored. There would, for example, be a locked door between the lobby and the hospital units, so no one could waltz in or out.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson reviewed the plans and made this comment via email: “The Sheriff’s Office scope on this project is limited to security issues only. And as such, we have no reason to believe at this time that it presents a security concern.”

We appreciate that some Templeton residents would prefer to see the facility built elsewhere, but wishing it could be in San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles or Nipomo won’t make it happen.

This is the application that has come before the county — nothing else is on the table — and to dismiss it out-of-hand because some residents of Templeton don’t want it would be a huge disservice to the entire county.

We aren’t saying the application should be accepted as is — there may be room for improvement, which is the beauty of the public hearing process.

We strongly urge the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors to consider not only Templeton, but also to look at the larger context: San Luis Obispo County residents are drastically underserved in the critical area of in-patient mental health care, and this is an excellent chance to fill the gap. Another opportunity may not come along any time soon.

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