Officials Spotlight Orange County Mental Health Services, $5 Million Earmarked for OC Be Well campus in Irvine

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Main News Photo

(Orange County Register)

A group of state and local officials gathered at the Be Well OC mental health services hub in Orange on Aug. 19, to applaud the on-site programs that began operating in January and celebrate an infusion of $5 million in state funds to help build a second campus near the Great Park in Irvine.

The early afternoon presentation of oversize mock checks happened even as Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, worked remotely from an empty hearing room at the Capitol in Sacramento, chairing a three-hour virtual meeting that looked at various aspects of both homelessness and mental health services in Orange County, including the needs of children impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

While different in tone and scope, both events highlighted ongoing efforts to better address mental and behavioral health issues. And the speakers – whether elected officials, service providers, or advocates – underscored the challenges faced in providing short- and long-term care to a segment of the population that only in recent years has begun to see meaningful attention and funding.

Speaking at the Be Well OC event, state Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, succinctly summed up the thinking of the day as she thanked senate colleague Tom Umberg and Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, both Democrats, for their bipartisan “heavy lifting” in working with her to secure not only the $5 million for a planned Be Well campus in Irvine but also $2 million for a database that will allow a host of different county departments to seamlessly share information on services provided to homeless and other high need individuals.

“Today is a great start,” said Bates, a former social worker who once oversaw a program in Los Angeles County for people dealing with severe mental illness, substance use issues, and poverty.

“But we all know that we have more work to do to ensure that every resident has access to the care they need.”

Children in Crisis
In Sacramento, Quirk-Silva presided over a meeting of the Assembly Select Committee on Orange County Homelessness and Mental Health Services. Quirk-Silva explained that the meeting, similar to one she moderated in Buena Park two years ago, was of greater import than a town hall she might hold because the information being provided by local experts and service providers would be officially entered into the state legislature’s record. A recording can be viewed at bit.ly/3B4TzBT.

Because of COVID-19 protocol, all the guests at the virtual meeting – from the fields of mental health, homelessness, and housing – spoke on a monitor. And Quirk-Silva, who lost a brother to alcoholism and homelessness and is considered a “bulldog” on the issue of homelessness, was the only legislator from the seven-member select committee present physically or virtually; the others had returned home Thursday and arcane Assembly rules prevent them from participating remotely, she explained.

The meeting was divided into presentations in three different areas: mental health community needs and services; mental health and homelessness; and housing. Perhaps the most startling revelations came from the first panel of presenters, which included Dr. Clayton Chau, director of the county’s Health Care Agency, and Dr. Heather C. Huszti, who chairs the division of pediatric psychiatry at CHOC Children’s Hospital Orange County.

Both Chau and Huszti spoke of the mental health toll the coronavirus pandemic has taken on children and adolescents.

There’s been an increase since the start of the pandemic in calls from parents seeking mental health services for their children, along with a 100% increase in requests from medical providers for psychiatric consultations on behalf of young patients with suicidal ideations, Huszti said. It’s uncertain how long the psychological effects of the pandemic might last, she added.

“Their illnesses are worse and it’s taking more care and longer (time) to address their issues,” Huszti said, citing depression and anxiety among those issues.

And, she pointed out to Quirk-Silva, Medi-Cal, the federally funded health coverage for California residents who can’t afford private insurance, does not pay for the kind of intensive outpatient programs an increasing number of impoverished young people need.

Big Boost
For adults and adolescents, the Be Well campus provides crisis intervention without making the ability to pay a hurdle.

The 60,000-square-foot, three-story Be Well OC building on south Anita Drive near the 57 Freeway opened its doors in January, touted as a possible model for bringing mental and behavioral health services in one place to people in crisis, regardless of their socioeconomic status and insurance coverage. It is the first of three such campuses envisioned by a public-private partnership known as Mind OC and has served more than 1,000 people so far. The campus’s 57 residential treatment beds – for programs of varying length – were all full on Friday.

The $5 million boost from the state is earmarked for the construction of the second Be Well campus on a 22-acre parcel near the Great Park in Irvine, land once part of the defunct Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. The campus is at least two years away. An old office building was demolished to create the $40 million facility in Orange, designed to erase the stigma and financial barriers that can prevent treatment.

The Irvine site will be twice as large and will likely house more longer-term residential programs, said Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do in a phone interview on Thursday. He did not know the estimated cost or completion date for the Irvine campus but called the state’s contribution “a big win for us” because it also serves as a stake for possible future allocations.

“$5 million is a lot of money, but more importantly for me, (Be Well OC) is on the state’s radar,” he said. “They know what we’re doing.”

The celebration in Orange, which can be viewed at facebook.com/ocgov, also acknowledged the less prominent but vital $2 million award from the state to help the county build out a long-desired software platform to make it easier to coordinate care for people in need, such as the chronically homeless, who become flagged as “high utilizers” of local programs and services. (Think multiple trips to emergency rooms.) County employees in five key areas – health care, behavioral health, housing, community corrections and social services – will be able to easier track someone’s care within the system.

The integrated database also should cut down the bureaucracy that can deter someone seeking help, Supervisor Katrina Foley said at the Be Well gathering.

“You don’t have to start over … filling out paperwork each time you need help.”

Category: Mental Health, Orange County, Great Park in Irvine, Irvine