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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, December 16, 2013, 6:00 am

Aurora mental health facility closer to official opening

Has treated about 100 adult patients as it awaits full approvals

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    SANTA ROSA — While it’s taken four years for Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital to navigate regulatory and construction hurdles before it fully opens to the public, it has been quietly treating patients since late July, when it partially opened to referrals from Sonoma County’s Health and Human Services Department.

    It’s now poised for full-scale operation, as soon as The Joint Commission and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare complete surveys of the 95-bed facility.

    David Drum, director of business development for Aurora, couldn’t say exactly when that was expected, but he said within a month is when the hospital is hoping to finally open the entire facility.

    Aurora campus on Fulton Road

    “We are open. We are licensed and we do have patients,” Mr. Drum said.

    Since July 31, Mr. Drum said Aurora has treated about 100 adult patients in one of its five 19-bed wings, mostly patients from Sonoma County’s psychiatric emergency services on Chanate Road across from Sutter Medical Center.

    Sonoma County also operates a 10-bed crisis residential program on Montgomery Drive. But beyond that, there’s no acute-care, inpatient psych hospital beds until Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, which has 17 beds for adults. The next closest facilities are in San Francisco or Sacramento.

    The return of a fully functioning psych hospital fills a huge void, particularly after both St. Joseph Health, which previously owned the Fulton Road building, and Sutter Health closed such facilities in 2008 and 2007, respectively.

    It’s not just Sonoma County or Northern California that lack access to thorough psych care, either. Prior to even the partial opening of Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, Sonoma County was one of 26 counties in the state that had no psych beds for adults, or 45 percent of the state’s 58 counties, according to the California Hospital Association. The county also was one of 47 with no psych beds for adolescents.

    That’s set to change as soon as Aurora Santa Rosa fully opens. It will offer its services for adults, adolescents — which haven’t been available in Sonoma County since the 1980s — and seniors. The hospital will also have an intensive outpatient program and a partial hospitalization program for walk-in patients.

    Given the paucity of beds in the region, Mr. Drum said Aurora Santa Rosa expects to draw from a wide range of Northern California, similar to how Santa Rosa Memorial, as a level 2 trauma center, draws emergency patients from as far away as Eureka.

    “There’s no place like this up to the Oregon border,” Mr. Drum said. “We’re getting calls every day.”

    Aurora’s parent company, Corona-based Signature Healthcare Services, purchased the 52,000-square-foot facility on Fulton Road near Guerneville Road in December 2009.  Signature Healthcare has since invested more than $4 million in rehabbing the Santa Rosa facility.

    In order to receive accreditation from The Joint Commission and CMS, all hospitals must show that, after obtaining a license to operate from the state, they can provide the adequate level of care. The Joint Commission is the leading accreditor of hospitals nationwide, while CMS approval is needed to receive reimbursement for Medi-Cal and Medicare patients.

    In addition to filling a significant hole in the health care landscape for much of Northern California, Aurora Santa Rosa and other mental health providers could be poised to capture a significant amount of newly insured under the Affordable Care Act. A key piece of health reform includes extending both Medi-Cal coverage and requiring all health plans to better cover mental health services.

    In the past, reimbursement rates from insurers and Medicare for mental health and psych services weren’t high enough for major health systems to operate psych facilities, Ken Meibert, CEO of Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, has told the Business Journal.

    But with the Affordable Care Act taking full effect in 2014, further emphasis has been placed on mental health issues by way of so-called “essential health benefits” that all insurers must include in health plans, including mental health services.

    “What we think is going to happen is a lot more people with have insurance, so access will be better,” Mr. Drum said. “There’s going to be more coverage for mental health.”

    Mark Knight, a health care consultant based in Santa Rosa, said more attention is shifting away from the traditional hospital settings and to other care settings, such as post-acute care and mental health, particularly because one of the main goals of health reform is to reduce hospital re-admissions.

    “We pay a lot of attention to hospitals. But when you look at health care more broadly, the real growth areas are going to be those areas,” Mr. Knight said, referring to mental health and post-acute care. “People are really beginning to focus on those.”

    Hospital and county health officials alike have said the arrival of an acute-care psych hospital will significantly alleviate the burden placed on emergency rooms throughout the county, where patients suffering a mental health crisis often end up.  Aurora Santa Rosa has signed transfer agreements with all of the surrounding hospitals, Mr. Drum said.

    Mr. Drum said there’s additional factors that are driving an increased need in mental health services, among them high-profile tragedies such as the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, and others like it, that have exposed a lack of comprehensive health services aimed at those suffering from mental illness. Similarly, the return of soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, has highlighted the need for stronger emphasis on mental health.

    “Those have brought to light mental health issues,” Mr. Drum said.

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