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Supervisors advance mental health care proposal with UCSD health

The San Diego County Administration building in downtown San Diego.
Angela Carone
The San Diego County Administration building in downtown San Diego. Sep. 25, 2013.

The county Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously advanced a proposed agreement with UC San Diego Health to provide acute psychiatric care, along with 30 to 45 additional beds, for eligible Medi-Cal patients at the university's East Campus Medical Center.

As put forward by Supervisor Monica Montgomery Steppe, the board directed Sarah Aghassi, interim chief administrative officer, to negotiate with UC San Diego Health officials. Aghassi will update the board within 120 days before any formal agreement is approved, according to Montgomery Steppe's office.

Before the vote Tuesday, Montgomery Steppe said the shortage of psychiatric care services for homeless or low-income people is one of the many pressing issues the county is facing.


She added that according to a recent study, one in 20 county residents are living with a serious mental illness, and that increases to one in 13 for those in low-income households.

A partnership would be a unique opportunity for the county to address vulnerable residents' needs, and establish a hub that would "bolster the county's behavioral health system for decades to come," Montgomery Steppe said.

According to Montgomery Steppe's office, the state of California is facing a shortfall of 1,971 acute-care beds, while San Diego County needs more than 8,000 behavioral health workers to meet demand.

"The exploration of a partnership with UCSD Health offers an opportunity to address both shortfalls by strengthening the behavioral health workforce and decreasing the gap in available psychiatric beds," the supervisor said.

Montgomery Steppe's colleague Joel Anderson described the proposal as "a long time coming," and a big step for the East County.


In a statement after the vote, Vice Chair Terra Lawson Remer said a partnership with UC San Diego would be "another example of how we are making fundamental changes to fix a system that was neglected for decades."

"This partnership means more beds to treat people experiencing psychiatric challenges, instead of spending the night on the streets," she said.

During a public comment period, eight people — most of them health care professionals — urged supervisors to make the partnership a reality.

Patty Maysent, CEO of UC San Diego Health, said her organization is ready to work with the county, after such an arrangement was first suggested eight years ago.

"It has been a long journey to get here today, and we have a good deal of work ahead of us," Maysent said.

Dr. Steve Koh, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego Health, said if the partnership is successful, it could be a model for California and the United States.

"We're at the precipice of something great," Koh added. "This will allow us to put the full spectrum of behavioral health care in one central site."

One woman told supervisors that families are begging for help for their loved ones dealing with behavioral health or neurological illness. She said society is watching those with mental illness decay on the streets or die in jail.

She asked the board, "Have you had to call the morgue every day? I have."

The woman added that she's thankful her family member got the help he needed.