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Truce Reached in Dispute Over Huge New Health Facility : Medicine: Psychiatric department claims victory concerning the agreement with UCI Medical Center for use of the 81,000-square-foot building for mentally ill.


ORANGE — Administrators with UCI Medical Center and the hospital's psychiatric department have reached a truce in a testy tug-of-war over the use of a new 81,000-square-foot building, officials said Wednesday.

Members of the psychiatric department feared administrators would dramatically slash the number of beds allotted for treating the mentally ill, but the agreement calls for nearly as many as were envisioned when the building was first approved.

The agreement, which was signed by the two sides on Tuesday, came as a state Senate special committee was preparing to hold a hearing on the issue in Orange County. The hearing, slated for Friday before Senate Special Committee on Developmental Disabilities and Mental Health, has been postponed indefinitely.

"The intent of the hearing was to ferret out what was really going on," said Peggy Collins, the committee's consultant. "The pressure of the hearing helped get this agreement. It inspired the two parties to sit down and hammer this out."

Psychiatric department officials said the agreement represented a victory for them in the battle over the building. But a hospital administrator suggested the document basically codified plans that have been in place for several months. Donald Hicks, the medical center's senior associate director, said the dispute was caused by a lack of communication between the two sides.

As originally envisioned when approved for construction by the Legislature in 1986, the $16.5-million building was to have 92 beds to house acute psychiatric patients.

But hospital administrators subsequently began eyeing the three-story structure for a variety of other medical uses, saying that the original plan for a facility exclusively dedicated to the mentally ill wouldn't fly in the current health care environment. Instead, they proposed putting under one roof a family of services dealing with treatment of the brain.

Advocates for the mentally ill countered that any shift from the building's original purpose would violate the will of the Legislature and ignored a persistent need for top-notch psychiatric treatment centers. They feared that they would end up with half the number of beds for adult psychiatric patients that were originally envisioned.

But under the agreement signed this week, the new building will be occupied almost exclusively by the psychiatric department and feature 80 beds for treating the mentally ill, department officials said.

The agreement calls for 36 beds for mentally ill adults on the first floor, 27 beds for children and teen-agers on the second floor and 17 beds for elderly patients on the third floor. In addition, partial hospitalization programs for adults and children have been added.

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