OC Breaks Ground on First Municipal Mental Health Treatment Campus

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Dr. Rick Afable, who leads the nonprofit that will run the Be Well OC mental health campus, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the campus on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

Orange County officials on Wednesday symbolically broke ground on the county’s first mental health treatment campus, celebrating the effort as part of a “seismic” shift from jails and hospitals to treatment for people with mental illnesses.

The campus, known as Be Well OC, is expected to open in January 2021 near where the Santa Ana River meets the 22 freeway in Orange.

“For too long, Orange County has lacked the…resources to treat mental illnesses and substance use disorders,” county Supervisor Andrew Do said at the ceremony.

Many people with mental illnesses “are suffering silently,” he added. “They are living on the street, they are languishing in our jails.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Left to right, Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, and Board of Supervisors: Lisa Bartlett, Michelle Steel, and Andrew at the Be Well OC Campus Groundbreaking.

The new campus “will be the first visible manifestation of the seismic change that is taking place for mental health and mental well-being in Orange County,” Do said, adding that work to fix the system is “far from over.”

The campus, known as Be Well OC, is being developed by county officials and private sector hospitals and medical providers, which formed a nonprofit called Mind OC to design, build and run the facility. The county bought the property in February 2018 and had the existing building torn down.

Plans call for mental health and drug addiction treatment programs to be available to all county residents, regardless of who their insurance provider is, which officials said would be the first facility in the nation to do so.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Richard Sanchez (left), director of the county’s Health Care Agency speaks at the Be Well OC mental health campus groundbreaking on Oct. 16, 2019. Standing next to him is Dr. Rick Afable, who leads the nonprofit that will run the campus.

Even people without insurance will get treated, officials said, paid for by state Mental Health Services Act funds.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a former leader of the state Senate who has focused on mental health issues, described a “broken mental health system” across California. Orange County is “leading the way” in California with the new mental health campus, he said.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mayor Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento during his remarks at the Be Well OC campus groundbreaking in the city of Orange.

As the county faces a severe shortage of mental health beds and services, officials and advocates spoke repeatedly of a need to create health treatment for people experiencing mental health crises as alternatives to jail.

“The idea of punishing the sick has to stop,” said Steve Pittman, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Orange County chapter, to loud applause from officials gathered at the ceremony.

“We need to invest our precious resources in treatment and recovery, not incarceration,” he added.

“How do we help give people the right treatment, the right services, so that they can hopefully be diverted from our criminal justice system altogether, and then in the future prevent them from entering the system to begin with,” Do told Voice of OC in an interview after the event.

Yet while Orange County supervisors increasingly refocus their public speeches onto mental health treatment, their recent spending decisions have tilted much more strongly towards law enforcement.

Earlier this year, Do and other supervisors moved $4 million in unspent Health Care Agency money to the Sheriff’s Department, to help cover cost overruns in providing existing services, mostly due to raises supervisors approved in 2016.

Last week, the supervisors voted for another round of sheriff’s deputy raises, of which about $110 million – and $48 million per year ongoing – will come from unrestricted county funds that could be used for health and homeless services and other programs.

Asked if moving the $4 million in unspent health care money to the Sheriff’s Department makes it more difficult to expand mental health services, Do said he disagreed that the money was moved.

“I don’t subscribe to that causation, that linkage between the two,” Do said.

The county’s quarterly budget update in September said $3,996,116 in unspent funds were transferred from the Health Care Agency to the Sheriff’s Department to cover cost overruns.

Asked again, given the staff report, if such a transfer makes it more difficult to expand mental health services, Do replied, “No. No. No, no. No” as he walked away from the reporter on his way to meet someone else.

The number of inmates with mental health issues in OC jails has risen by 40 percent since 2015, according to sheriff officials.

The county is currently working on a $167 million expansion of the Musick jail facility in Irvine that is partly designed to accommodate more people with mental illnesses. The expansion will add 896 beds.

Officials said the new Be Well campus will include triage, mental health intake, drug addiction intake and referral, withdrawal management, residential treatment, transportation to help people get to outside appointments, a mental health crisis treatment center, and mobile teams that respond to mental health crises out in the community.

It will have the capacity to serve about 95 people at any one time and about 15,000 people per year.

The move to create a mental health campus comes as the county faces a severe shortage of mental health treatment beds, which has overrun hospital emergency rooms and jails with people experiencing psychiatric crises.

“This Be Well OC campus is really going to help offload patients from coming in to the ERs and the hospitals, which is really not the best place for people to go when they have a mental health crisis,” said Lisa Bartlett, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Major hospitals in Orange County have each chipped in $4 million toward the Be Well campus, she said.

The mental health campus will sit amid a cluster of office buildings between the Santa Ana River and the Orange Crush interchange where three of the county’s main freeways – the 5, 22, and 57 – meet.

County supervisors bought the Be Well property for $7.8 million, and so far have authorized $28 million to Mind OC to design and build the campus.

One example of the ongoing shift in approach to mental health played out last year on the Santa Ana River, just outside the future Be Well campus. After a homeless encampment along the riverbed grew to hundreds of people, county officials made plans to clear out the camp with sheriff’s deputies while shelters were nearly or completely full.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter blocked the county from moving forward until they agreed to have health outreach workers be the point of contact in offering homeless people an alternative place to sleep, with sheriff’s deputies standing by a few steps back for security.

Ultimately, the county and about half of the cities in Orange County have agreed to court-enforceable settlement agreements where, before police can clear out homeless camps, outreach workers first assess homeless people’s mental and physical disabilities and offer services and a shelter bed.

Do credited the change in thinking to advocates who have pressed officials for years to change their thinking.

“They’ve been preaching this message for decades, you know kind of having fallen on deaf ears,” he told Voice of OC. “That shift was caused by all those people, all those advocates, working for so long.”

“Today is just the first visible manifestation of a seismic shift,” he added. “I feel that with every fiber in my body, that this is a new era….This is a movement that we see is picking up speed everywhere.”

Officials said they’re aiming to add two more Be Well mental health campuses in other parts of Orange County, for a total of three.

“I hope…as more coverage on mental health, on substance use disorder, on creating a system of care – as more discussion and more coverage in the media take place, that collectively our communities will buy in, and then that will then empower the city councils to then move together,” Do told Voice of OC.

Discussions are ongoing about a second location that could be announced early next year, officials said.

One state legislator volunteered to add another campus in his district, which already contains what will be the first Be Well center.

“I’m so happy that the Be Well mental health center is located in Orange, [in] my district,” said state Assemblyman Stephen Choi, a Republican.

“I hope [the] next one will be also in my district, ranging from Lake Forest to Irvine, Tustin, Orange, Villa Park, and Anaheim Hills.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.