The ribbon cutting, at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 13, will be virtual, but the new Be Well OC campus in Orange is expected to be a very real milestone in local health care.
The site, at Anita Drive and Chapman Avenue, will provide urgent care for people suffering mental and behavioral health issues. Patients, regardless of their ability to pay, can be referred to Be Well OC for crisis treatment and follow-up services.
A center that helps battle mental illness and substance abuse in the community is long overdue, those involved in the project acknowledge. At least one more Be Well center is expected to open over the next two years.
But the first, opening on schedule, is an event. More than 500 people have said they’ll attend the virtual ribbon cutting at noon. Actual openings — of the sobering station and the crisis stabilization unit — are slated for Jan. 25 and Feb. 1. Residential treatment will come on board in March and April.
The product of a public-private partnership involving a host of government agencies, hospital systems, and nonprofits, the Be Well campus will feature the county’s first ever sobering station where people brought in under the throes of acute substance abuse — drugs and alcohol — can stabilize and, later, receive guidance for long-term treatments, including on-site withdrawal management.
There is an obvious need for such help: In the last fiscal year, the county provided substance-use related services to 11,887 clients.
Others suffering active mental health problems also can get immediate treatment. Supporters hope the Be Well model will erode the stigma associated with seeking treatment for a mental illness.
The Be Well site also isn’t institutional. Drab, depressive decor and color schemes have been replaced with a look intended to be welcoming. The design was created, in part, with input from people dealing with the issues to be addressed at Be Well.
“It’s astoundingly beautiful,” said Steve Pitman, a Lake Forest resident serving his last year on the national board of the National Association for the Mentally Ill (more often referred to as NAMI) and someone whose family has experienced generational mental illness.
“It is not at all what you would expect in what is basically a psychiatric unit.”
The bright, airy 60,000-square-foot, three-story building features accent walls and furnishings in soothing earth tones, artwork of calming scenes from nature and other comforting touches that reflect a patient-friendly trend in the design of mental health facilities.
Beyond the design and one-stop services, stakeholders note that Be Well OC is an important public, private partnership and, as such, it might be a model for future health projects.
“This building is not a panacea, but it is a model and a cornerstone from which we can build out the rest of the (mental health care) system,” said Marshall Moncrief, chief executive of Be Well OC. Moncreif previously served as regional executive director at Providence St. Joseph and, before that, as director of neurobehavioral health at Hoag Presbyterian Hospital.
“We’re asking for the community’s patience with this process.”
Initially, Be Well OC will accept patients only by referral — limited to escorts by law enforcement, hospitals, and the county’s outreach and engagement health workers, known on the streets as “the blue shirts” because of the polo shirts they typically wear.
Still, supporters note that with stress and anxiety rising as byproducts of the coronavirus epidemic, the opening of the Be Well campus could not be more timely. A second, larger site in Irvine near the Great Park is anticipated to open in the next two years
“Prior to the pandemic, depression, substance use, suicide, homelessness — all of these things that have an interrelated quality — were considered to be at epidemic levels,” Moncrief said.
“Covid has come in and fanned the flames of those already existing crises.”
The Be Well OC project came together relatively quickly, given the county’s longstanding shortfall of adequate mental and behavioral health services — a statewide and national predicament, to be fair. But that lack has led to traumatized people in crisis turning to hospital emergency rooms and to the county jail becoming the largest de-facto residential mental health provider in Orange County.
The 12-bed sobering station — one side for women and the other for men — on the first floor of the Be Well OC building is the first of its kind in Orange County, where people who are incapacitated by alcohol or drugs can be taken.
And for 20 years, Orange County had only one crisis stabilization unit, in Santa Ana, that could serve about 15 adults a day who were suffering acute mental health emergencies; a second site, at College Hospital in Costa Mesa, was added in mid-2019 to care for an additional 18 people a day.
As at the other crisis stabilization centers, stays at the Be Well OC units — one for up to 16 adults and another for eight adolescents, 12 to 18 years old — will be limited to 24 hours or less. During that time, care providers can conduct psychiatric evaluations, dispense medications, make referrals for further care, and transfer people to inpatient treatment.
Moncrief was succinct in answering why it took this long to initiate the kind of comprehensive hub that Be Well OC is expected to become.
“Because it’s hard,” he said, referring to harnessing the collective will needed to commit the huge chunk of money and giant leap of faith toward a collaborative effort like Be Well OC.
“It took a lot of people saying, ‘Yes,’” added Jeff Nagel, the Health Care Agency’s director of behavioral health services.
Be Well OC is patterned in part after the Haven of Hope complex for homeless people in San Antonio, Texas, that local officials and community leaders visited a few years ago. Now, Be Well OC is being watched by interested parties from around the state and elsewhere as a potential groundbreaking model. There’s been input in its development as well from the county’s local universities and its faith community.
The $40 million project was financed by a $16.6 million allocation from the Board of Supervisors in early 2019, $11.4 million from CalOptima, the county’s health care insurer for the poor and disabled, and another $12 million in contributions from private donors and major hospital systems — Kaiser Permanente, Hoag Presbyterian, MemorialCare, and Providence St. Joseph Health, which operates St. Joseph Hospital in Orange and St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
CHOC Children’s Hospital, which opened an inpatient mental health center for children in April 2018, also is working with Be Well OC, whose crisis stabilization unit for adolescents is another first in the county’s developing youth mental health system.
Public agencies involved in Be Well OC include the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Health Care Agency. Nonprofits such as NAMI Orange County have been engaged as well in providing input and feedback, and Pitman sits on a governing board of directors.
Be Well OC’s first nonprofit tenant will be the Orange County WarmLine, a NAMI-operated and county-funded phone service that fields calls from people experiencing non-emergency mental and behavioral health issues. WarmLine, which expanded to a 24/7 operation in response to the pandemic, is slated to relocate from its Tustin office later this month.
The annual cost to operate the six on-site programs is close to $20 million.
The operating budget includes a contract with Exodus Recovery to handle the crisis stabilization units and on-site, short-term residential treatment for patients in need of mental health care. On Monday, a team of 30 health care workers from Exodus attended an orientation.
Telecare, also under a contract, will manage the sobering station and residential substance use disorder care. The San Francisco-based corporation was accused in 2018 of not providing proper services to homeless people placed under its care by the county at an Anaheim motel. But Moncrief said Be Well OC is highly satisfied with the vetting process that led to choosing Telecare.
“We feel good about choosing the cream of the crop,” he said, adding that “seasoned clinicians” were involved in the process.
All stays at the campus will be voluntary.
County Supervisor Don Wagner, whose Third District includes both the Orange and Irvine Be Well OC sites, said he has mostly heard positive feedback from his constituents about hosting the two campuses. But he did get calls when the Irvine location was first announced, from people asking if it was going to be a homeless shelter or if there would be people with mental health issues wandering in and out.
“Once it’s explained to them, they not only recognize that it is something different, but that it is needed,” Wagner said.
The site intends to offer services to people of all income levels. Having insurance won’t be an upfront requirement for treatment, and no one will be turned away. For those who can’t or won’t get health insurance, there will be a financial assessment to determine ability to pay, based on a sliding scale, Nagel, the county’s behavioral health director, said.
“You can come in based on clinical need, not the insurance card that’s in your wallet,” Nagel said during a tour of the site on Monday.
“If somebody doesn’t have money and need the services, we’re going to try to accommodate them.”
As CalOptima’s chief executive officer, Richard Sanchez oversees health services to 750,000 low-income enrollees, 1 of every 4 Orange County residents. Prior to taking the CalOptima leadership, he served as director of the county’s Health Care Agency. During three visits he paid to Haven of Hope in Texas, Sanchez said he kept hearing how its sobering station was a “godsend” to local police and hospitals.
“I absolutely hope that this is a location that will be used by law enforcement and others to divert people, as opposed to some other location where they’re just going to be sobered up and back on the street,” Sanchez said of Be Well OC.
There’s a good chance they will run into Marsha Staring, who was once a homeless drunk living beneath the Newport Beach pier until she got sober nearly nine years ago. After 25 years of drinking and drug use, she lost her husband, who drank himself to death, Staring said. With help from Roque Center rehab, she transformed her life, eventually becoming supervisor of client services in recovery and chemical dependency at Hoag during the time Moncrief was there.
Staring, 61, had moved to Florida to be closer to family when Moncrief contacted her about joining the Be Well OC team. She jumped at the chance to be a part of the campus as its customer welcome specialist. But she will be more than a greeter.
“I get these people,” she said of those struggling with addictions and mental health issues. “I don’t ever want to forget where I came from … What we are going to be offering here will be like the filet mignon of recovery.”