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Whatcom, Skagit behavioral health care headed for makeover

Western State Hospital, an 857-bed psychiatric facility in Lakewood
Western State Hospital, an 857-bed psychiatric facility in Lakewood The News Tribune file

Plans to change the way behavioral health services are provided throughout the state are gaining momentum.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week a five-year plan to transition the focus on behavioral health patient placement away from large facilities such as Western State Hospital and toward small, local facilities.

That’s a concept Skagit County and the North Sound Behavioral Health Organization are working toward locally.

The North Sound Behavioral Health Organization manages behavioral health services in Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties.

North Sound Executive Director Joe Valentine said with the $22.5 million the state Legislature included in capital budgets earlier this year and $8.5 million of the regional behavioral health organization’s funding, plans to build treatment facilities in the region will move forward this year, including some in Skagit County.

When the organization formed in 1987, the state was already moving away from large institutions such as Northern State Hospital, which was shuttered in Sedro-Woolley in 1972, and Western State Hospital in Lakewood, which continues to struggle to meet the demand for care.

Now, given changes to Medicaid rules that are making funding available only to facilities with 16 or fewer beds – and the proven effectiveness of smaller, local treatment centers – the organization plans to build eight treatment facilities throughout its five-county region.

Two of those will be on a campus in Skagit County. The county is currently seeking a location for those facilities, which would be part of what will be called the Skagit Stabilization Campus.

The county, in collaboration with North Sound, envisions having a 16-bed evaluation and treatment facility and a 16-bed acute detox facility at the one location away from residential areas, Valentine said.

County officials declined to comment on potential locations.

Evaluation and treatment centers are facilities where those in crisis – meaning they are experiencing a breakdown and posing a potential risk to themselves or others – can be taken for a short-term stay during which care providers chart a long-term recovery plan.

Telecare Corp. currently operates this type of facility at the North Sound Evaluation and Treatment Center on the former Northern State Hospital campus.

But due to redevelopment plans at the site, which will become the SWIFT (Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow) Center, leases for the Telecare Corp. facility and nearby Pioneer Center North – a 141-bed substance abuse treatment center – will soon end.

Valentine said the Skagit Stabilization Campus would create a replacement evaluation and treatment center. That evaluation and treatment center and seven other facilities the organization plans to build throughout the region would make a total of 120 beds available for a variety of behavioral health treatment needs.

The latest state budgets provide $1.5 million for the Skagit Stabilization Campus. Combined with $2.5 million from North Sound, that funding will move the project into a site evaluation and design phase, Valentine said.

The state budgets also provided $10 million for two substance use treatment facilities in Everett, $7 million for two facilities in Bellingham and $4 million for a facility in Oak Harbor.

North Sound has not selected a location for the eighth facility it plans to build, and the state did not provide funding for it this year.

Valentine said legislators representing the North Sound region, particularly Reps. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, and Norma Smith, R-Clinton, helped secure the funding provided in the capital budgets.

“Both Reps. Eslick and Smith are very aware of the opioid crisis and are very supportive of getting funding for these projects,” he said. “The entire legislative delegation from the North Sound also advocated for the funding, which helped.”

Rebuilding the region’s behavioral health services facilities is going to take millions more.

The North Sound Behavioral Health Organization plans to ask for as much as $47.5 million in the next budget cycle, Valentine said.

The organization needs additional funding in order to build the Skagit Stabilization Campus and a 16-bed facility for long-term substance abuse treatment to help replace services when Pioneer Center North closes.

They also need funding to build five recovery houses – one in each county.

Valentine said recovery houses will act as a middle step to behavioral health treatment. Between intensive in-patient treatment and being reintroduced into the community, patients can continue treatment in a safe place with access to additional resources.

Valentine said the redevelopment plans for the former Northern State Hospital spurred the North Sound Behavioral Health Organization and the counties it covers to search for a long-term solution to providing better behavioral health care.

“People end up in the emergency room or if there’s no place for them they end up back on the streets,” Valentine said.

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