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Controversy, misinformation surrounds Rocklin mental hospital

Citizens cry foul over conflicting claims, lack of transparency in proposed project
By: Andrew Westrope,
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There are more than 1,400 signatures on an online petition to stop a new psychiatric hospital from being built in Rocklin, on West Ranch View Drive near Whitney High School and University Avenue. The city has delayed public hearings on the project and tried to allay fears by circulating information from project applicant Universal Health Services, but the more residents hear, the more signatures wind up on their petition.

UHS is a Pennsylvania-based hospital management company with more than 225 facilities in 37 states, and several of its hospitals have been investigated for billing false claims since early 2013. In March 2015, a disclosure filed by UHS revealed that its corporate offices are under federal investigation as well, but the specifics of the investigation are still under wraps.

Rocklin residents’ main concerns, according to their petition, are about the psychiatric hospital’s patients posing a threat to public safety. The 102-bed, 58,000-square-foot facility, tentatively called Northern California Behavioral Health Hospital, would be 597 feet away from Whitney High, adjacent to a senior living complex and within half a mile of a community park with soccer and baseball fields, running trails and a playground.

There are conflicting claims about the validity of these concerns.

Lack of communication

One resident, Joe Patterson, believes the city has been fast-tracking the project without doing its due diligence, and was irked when he saw that the city had published an FAQ about the hospital, using city letterhead, that was written by UHS instead of the city’s own fact-finding team. Patterson made a public records request in October for any and all communications between city officials and UHS regarding the project and found emails about the hospital dating back to April 3, 2014. The first record of a conversation between UHS and Rocklin Police Department was in late October 2015, after city staff had prepared its report on the project. Critics say this suggests the city’s report involved little to no police input.

According to a declaration of mailing notice from the Rocklin Community Development Department, UHS was required to disclose its proposal by mail to everyone within a 300-foot radius of the site, which entailed only five parties – an Orchard Creek Investors office, the nearby seniors center, the office of an adjacent apartment complex, an office of the Regents of the University of California, and the city of Lincoln.

The correspondence between the city and UHS also revealed an awareness in both parties that the project could spark controversy, and a desire to minimize that. In an email exchange between Rocklin spokesman Troy Holt and Brian Holloway, president of a Sacramento consulting firm working on the project, Holloway said Rocklin schools’ Superintendent Roger Stock asked for a meeting with Rocklin fire and police. Holloway said beforehand that he was “hopeful that after the meeting the district might publicly indicate their ‘no concerns’ in written form to the (planning) commission and (city) council.” Holt replied by saying Rocklin’s Executive Committee preferred that Rocklin schools personnel meet with the city’s planning staff instead of police and fire, so as not to “artificially elevate safety concerns.”

Patients

UHS has been consistent in its claim that the new hospital would not treat criminally insane patients, but getting more specific than that, the story changes depending on who’s talking.

In a memo to Police Chief Ron Lawrence from October 2015, Capt. Chad Butler said UHS’ Vice President of Development Rob Minor told him “the vast majority” of its new hospital’s patients would be voluntary, transported by a family member.

UHS’ initial project proposal, however, while omitting any detailed description of what sort of patients the hospital would treat, said 75-80 percent of them would arrive via police, sheriff or ambulance. It said most of these would come from hospital emergency rooms, and only 5 percent would be delivered by family members.

Also in October, Rocklin spokesman Troy Holt told the Placer Herald that residents’ fears that the facility would accept patients “on an involuntary medical hold due to illness such as active suicidal/homicidal ideation” was “absolutely incorrect,” based on information he had at the time.

This turned out to be partially inconsistent with a letter Holt later received from Senior Vice President Bob Deney of UHS’ Behavioral Healthcare Division, which explained the following: “The majority of the patients we serve have psychiatric diagnoses such as mood disorders, post-traumatic stress, anxiety or depression, substance abuse issues, psychosis or suicidal ideation.” The fact of most patients being involuntary, again, came from UHS’ own project proposal to the city.

The hospital will accept patients under Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code, which gives authority to doctors and police officers to involuntarily commit a patient suspected of having a mental disorder that makes him a danger to himself or others, and/or gravely disabled.

In the aforementioned memo to Chief Lawrence, Butler said a UHS official told him escapes are rare but do happen “maybe once per year,” and if any 5150 patients want to leave after their legally-required terms, staff will try to talk them out of it but can’t stop them from walking.

Discharge

Rocklin resident Lindsay King, a patient care coordinator with Dignity Health Medical Group, said she does discharge planning for a lot of 5150 placements, and she worries about how Rocklin would handle a psychiatric hospital’s output. In addition to having worked with Sacramento County on its biannual homeless population mapping project, she said she’s dealt with both of UHS’ facilities in Sacramento – Heritage Oaks Hospital on Auburn Boulevard, and Sierra Vista Hospital on Bruceville Road – and found a disconcerting system of catch-and-release.

“The real concern is what happens when (patients) are released. When they’re released, patients can sign out what we call ‘against medical advice,’ meaning that they refuse more treatment. They’re done, their 5150 or 5250 is expired, and they don’t have to stay there … they can just walk out to the road," King said. "There’s a reason there are so many homeless people outside of Sierra Vista and Heritage Oaks.”

She added that neither Auburn Boulevard nor Bruceville Road are frequented by students walking to school, unlike the neighborhood around Ranch View Drive and University Avenue.

In his memo to Holt, Deney from UHS said patients will be released to family members or care providers, but King didn’t buy that either.

“They claim they work closely with family and relatives to safely discharge (patients),” she said. “The reality is, many of them are homeless. They don’t have families.”

UHS’ official project proposal seems to back that up when it says patient visitors are “not as common” as a regular hospital, and that “only half of the patients ever have visitors.”

King said the alternative discharge method of delivering patients to shelters might prove difficult in Placer County, since most local shelters will not take patients from psychiatric facilities or acute care hospitals. She said the only exception she knows is the interim care program at the Salvation Army, which has 30 beds that are almost always full.

“If I want to get a patient in there, I have to let them know two weeks ahead of time to reserve a bed,” she said.

Community meetings

The tide of new information, or misinformation, has pushed back the public hearing for UHS’ new hospital repeatedly. Originally scheduled to go before the planning commission Nov. 17, the proposal will now have its hearing at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 19, at the Rocklin Event Center.

Patterson said he asked the city to expand the public comment period, which closed Nov. 13, because it gave UHS an extension on its deadline to present a proposal to the planning commission. However, the city declined, and without an extension, citizens can still submit comments but the city is no longer required to respond in writing.

“What if I have a question about something I’ve learned from UHS? What if UHS says something that I don’t think is true? I want to get the city to put a response in writing,” Patterson said. “The process should be about keeping people safe and being transparent about what’s happening in our community, not about … ‘We’ll give (UHS) two more months, but we’re not going to give you any more time to ask questions.’ That just infuriates me.”

UHS has scheduled two community meetings to answer the public’s questions. The first will be 6:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8 at the MP room of Twelve Bridges Middle School in Lincoln, 770 Westview Drive. The second will be 6:30-9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15 at the Rocklin Event Center.

The Placer Herald's ongoing coverage of the Northern California Behavioral Heath Hospital also includes:

  • an explanation of the project, words from its advocates and the petition against it, available here.
  • comments from Police Chief Ron Lawrence and Rocklin schools Superintendent Roger Stock regarding the proposed hospital, available here.
  • the outcome of a community meeting hosted by UHS, available here.
  • a breakdown of the decision by Rocklin Unified School District's board of trustees not to support the project, coming soon.