For-profit treatment facilities need state oversight

The News TribuneSeptember 28, 2012 

An unfortunate situation unfolding in the Seattle suburb of Normandy Park offers a cautionary tale to other cities. What’s happening there could very easily happen elsewhere.

According to reporting by the Seattle Times, a for-profit company in Normandy Park that claims to provide mental health treatment is one of a growing number of such organizations that have found a sweet spot that allows them to avoid state regulatory oversight.

Earlier this year, California-based Hanbleceya opened a clinic in Normandy Park and either purchased or rented five nearby homes as housing for its clients – people suffering from an array of serious mental illness, drug addiction or other conditions. It charges clients up to $100,000 a year for room and treatment.

Because the treatment is provided at the clinic, not at the homes, Hanbleceya maintains that they are not residential treatment facilities – thus they don’t need to be licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health.

Besides maintaining unregulated boarding homes in residential neighborhoods, Hanbleceya has been accused of neglecting its vulnerable clients. According to critics, when clients act out, punishment can include being kicked out of housing and forced to fend for themselves on the street. At the same time, their families continue to pay for their care and are told not to respond if the client tries to make contact.

One client interviewed by the Times – a mentally ill young man with substance abuse issues – was dropped off in downtown Seattle with little money and no ID. Temperatures dropped into the 30s, and he had only sandals and the clothes on his back. He spent weeks on the street – yet his parents were not informed and were still charged for care and treatment he wasn’t receiving.

“It’s a miracle he didn’t kill himself or someone else,” said his father.

If there’s a gap in state law that allows this sort of “treatment” to go unregulated, then it must be addressed. In at least one other state, Texas, neglect at a boarding facility led to the deaths of four men in a fire. That state is now expected to pass legislation next month to regulate these homes.

Until the state acts, cities should take preemptive measures against such unregulated activity. They should examine their zoning codes and determine if they are vulnerable to an organization like Hanbleceya moving in.

It’s unfortunate that the state’s shortage of psychiatric facilities – and general reluctance to fund mental health care – have resulted in this sort of for-profit company stepping in to fill a vacuum. The state needs to exert more oversight – by requiring staff training and adequate supervision, for starters – in order to improve safety for clients and neighbors.

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