The Ventura County Board of Supervisors, agreeing that the county's inpatient center for the mentally ill is overcrowded and understaffed, voted Tuesday to spend $25,000 to draw up architectural plans to expand it.
The board said it favors a $900,000 construction project that would add a locked 15-bed section to the mental health unit across from the Ventura County Medical Center, but it raised concerns about the additional $700,000 that it would cost annually to care for those patients.
"Operating costs are high and we may have a real problem," Supervisor Susan Lacey said. However, she added that with the state considering cutting its mental health aid to counties and overcrowding at the existing facility, "we just can't wait anymore."
Randy Feltman, manager of children's services for Ventura County's Mental Health Department, said the state cited the inpatient facility six months ago for overcrowding. The facility was also cited because its staff-to-patient ratio failed to meet state requirements, said Mike Amey, Ventura County's patient's rights advocate.
The facility is licensed to house 28 patients, but more than 30 were on the ward when the state Department of Health Services' licensing and certification division inspected it, Feltman said.
The citation prompted Barry Hammitt, executive director of Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, to call the situation at the unit "a formula for disaster" in a letter last month to the Board of Supervisors.
He called for the board to hold public hearings on the issue and said the overcrowding may have contributed to the death of a patient who walked away from the mental health unit recently and jumped from a hotel floor to her death.
Mental health officials deny any connection. And they say that since the citation was issued, they have taken steps to alleviate overcrowding by hiring a psychiatrist to screen patients before nighttime admittance.
Before January, social workers, police officers and others would bring in patients at all hours of the day and night, and their admission often resulted in overcrowding, Feltman said.
Mental health officials say the county has also suffered from a recent state decision to reduce the county's use of Camarillo State Hospital, which has a locked facility for mental patients.
For a county that's growing the way Ventura County is, there has been a longstanding need for locked beds and more beds, Feltman said.
The architectural plans are expected to be ready in May, and the Board of Supervisors would then vote on the actual construction.
Phillipp K. Wessels, director of the county's Health Care Agency, said the agency has set aside $674,000 in mental health reimbursement funds that could be used to pay for the construction, which means that the county would only have to come up with an additional $225,000.
But the county would then have to foot the bill for up to $700,000 in annual operating costs. Health care officials say part of those costs could be funded by revenues collected from Medi-Cal and from private patients who use the facility.