A new crisis center in Bellingham is finally being built, but operating funds are short

A new center for adults struggling with mental illness and substance abuse will open next year in Bellingham amid concern about funding to pay for services.

Annual operating costs for the Crisis Stabilization Facility are expected to be $8 million, according to Anne Deacon, the human services manager for the Whatcom County Health Department.

The Crisis Stabilization Facility would replace a smaller 13-bed center on Division Street.

A larger space to stabilize more people in crisis has been long desired and though county officials celebrated the start of construction on Sept. 30, they are worried about ongoing funding to pay for services.

Medicaid dollars and a small amount of state general fund money will help pay for such operational costs.

It’s not enough.

Here’s the problem:

Commercial health plans typically don’t cover these services, Deacon said, adding that they should and officials will try to change that.

“It is hoped that commercial health plans, who offer insurance to the private market, will also see the benefit of these lower-cost, yet effective, services and include funding support in their benefit packages,” Deacon said to The Bellingham Herald.

Washington state uses a combination of Medicaid and general fund money to pay for the crisis response system statewide. The county had planned to rely on those general fund dollars to help pay for services for people who don’t have insurance and aren’t enrolled in Medicaid.

But those state dollars are no longer available because the state is redesigning that system and has shifted some of the money to managed-care organizations, which focus only on the people they cover, Deacon explained.

Such organizations are typically commercial health plans that have a contract with the state Health Care Authority to administer Medicaid coverage.

That means Whatcom County will get just $1 million over two years for its crisis facility.

This piece of the funding will need to be discussed with state legislators over the next couple of years, Deacon said.

“If these are truly less costly yet very effective services and will save the state money over time, shouldn’t they be investing?” Deacon said.

“Either you pay now,” she said, “or pay later.”

If the current issues with funding for operations can’t be resolved, Deacon said services may need to be adjusted to make them less costly.

About 70 percent of patients at the existing Triage Center are on Medicaid, according to Deacon.

“We’re short and we’re looking,” Deacon said.

Crisis Center.jpg
Construction started in September on the $10.4 million Whatcom County Crisis Stabilization Facility at 2026 Division St. in Bellingham in front of the existing Crisis Triage Center. The 32-bed space is expected to open summer or fall 2020. It will serve five counties. Kie Relyea The Bellingham Herald

Money for construction

Meanwhile, the construction of the Crisis Stabilization Facility has started and it’s expected to open next summer or early fall.

Money to build it comes from a number of sources.

The Washington State Department of Commerce provided $7 million. The North Sound Behavioral Health Organization, which oversees crisis services in northwest Washington, added $2.5 million.

Whatcom County’s Behavioral Health Fund — created when the County Council approved a one-tenth of 1% sales tax in 2008 — chipped in $3 million to build the facility at 2026 Division St., in front of the existing Whatcom County Crisis Triage Center.

The total cost for the project is about $12.4 million, with all but $2 million of that for construction, according to Tyler Schroeder, deputy executive for Whatcom County.

Everson-based Tiger Construction is the builder.

The existing Triage Center helps stabilize five people who are suffering a mental health crisis, and eight people withdrawing from drugs and/or alcohol. Both services share a building, although different organizations run them.

The center opened about 13 years ago and will close when the new center opens.

It is smaller and often full, so the expansion was needed to provide services to more people who would otherwise end up in jail, the hospital emergency room or back on the streets, officials said.

“Everyone believes treatment is better than incarceration when it’s appropriate,” Deacon said. “Every time you take somebody out of their ability to make a living and throw them into jail you’re making challenge upon challenge.”

Law enforcement and PeaceHealth, which operates the hospital in Bellingham, both support the project to build the larger Crisis Stabilization Center.

An average of 385 patients concerned about mental health or substance abuse go to the hospital’s ER a month, making up about 7% of all ER visits, according to PeaceHealth.

At 24,450 square feet, the larger Crisis Stabilization Facility will have 32 beds — evenly split between mental health and detox — and more services.

The size of the new center is affected by Medicaid funding, which limits each side to a maximum of 16 beds.

It will serve people from the five counties in the North Sound, including Whatcom, but a “certain number of beds will always be prioritized for Whatcom County residents,” Deacon said.

Adults getting treatment would do so voluntarily.

Services include medication to help people withdrawing from drugs and alcohol, and help to stabilize adults struggling with debilitating depression and anxiety as well as psychotic symptoms.

As they do now, Compass Health will provide mental health services and Pioneer Human Services will handle detox.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.