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Supervisors delay approval of mental health facilities after two hospitals raise concerns


County of Kern Adminstrative Center.

A proposal to build two new psychiatric health facilities has been delayed once again after concerns arose the county may be spending money where it's not needed.

Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services had hoped to get a go-ahead for the estimated $25.5 million project Tuesday from the Board of Supervisors, but objections from two local health care companies threw the entire undertaking into question.

At issue is whether Kern County’s psychiatric treatment facilities have reached capacity, which would limit treatment options for residents experiencing mental health crises.

The behavioral health department says the county has reached the point where more beds must be constructed. The department has reported its four facilities have experienced more than a 20 percent increase in demand during the last three years. Of particular concern is treatment capabilities for people between the ages of 16 and 20, for whom the county has had difficulty securing beds.

“There are not enough acute beds in California and we are wishing to try to address that for our county,” Bill Walker, director of the behavioral health department, said Tuesday.

The department’s two new facilities would contain at least 16 beds each, and would serve minors and adults alike.

However, both Good Samaritan Hospital and Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital opposed the project, questioning the county’s need for additional facilities.

“Everybody in the country and the state, everywhere, is recommending increasing funding for places that will reduce hospitalizations and decreasing the need for hospitalizations, not pouring more money into just making more hospital beds,” Dr. Mandeep Bagga of Good Samaritan Hospital said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Jeff Chinn, CEO of Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital, said his facility on White Lane consistently had 30 to 35 beds available for mental health patients. Although the hospital does not necessarily schedule enough staff to cover those beds at all times, Chinn added a partnership with the behavioral health department could potentially solve the county’s capacity problems faster than constructing two new buildings.

“As a resident of Kern County myself and a taxpayer, I would like to just request we look at other ways of meeting the needs rather than spending this money,” he said.

When confronted with these objections, supervisors appeared split. Supervisor Mick Gleason made a motion to approve the construction, but a vote was never called because his colleagues refused to offer a second.

Supervisor Leticia Perez said she felt torn and confused about the issue, and other supervisors expressed a desire to have more questions answered before the project moves forward.

The behavioral health department has been working on the two buildings for three years and has already purchased the necessary land on Workman Street. Supervisors delayed an approval in September, saying at the time they needed more time to consider the details of the project and hear from the public.

Initially expected to be completed as soon as the end of 2022, the project would bring 76 jobs to the county. But for now it is unclear whether it will move forward at all.

“I think (supervisors) wanted better answers on what is the existing capacity with existing providers and is there a role for a public-private partnership,” Jeff Flores, Supervisor Mike Maggard’s chief of staff said on Wednesday. “I think it’s on pause right now.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.