SANTA ROSA -- After a longer-than-expected state approval process, Signature Healthcare Services expects to have building improvements for its planned acute psychiatric care hospital in west Santa Rosa completed by November of this year and open the facility early next year.

The planned 95-bed facility would return inpatient acute psych care to Sonoma County. By the time of the projected opening, the county will have been without such a facility for four years.

Construction on the planned 95-bed facility began June 21, after the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development signed off on the plans. About 40 percent of the construction has been completed, according to Blair Stam, executive vice president of Corona-based Signature.

"Every indication is there is a huge need [in Sonoma County]" Mr. Stam said. "Patients are being sent too far. It's going to be much better for patients and their families."

Upon completion of construction, Signature will seek a certificate of occupancy from OSHPD. That could enable it to open its doors to patients by mid-to-late January, he said.

Signature purchased for an undisclosed price the 52,000 square-foot hospital at 1287 Fulton Rd. in late 2009, about a year after it was shuttered by its previous operator, St. Joseph Health System--Sonoma County. Sutter Health closed its 30-bed inpatient psych facility in 2007. St. Joseph's facility, at the time of its closure, had about half the amount of Signature's planned 95 licensed beds.

Those closures created a void in Sonoma County and beyond, particularly for adolescents. When Signature opens the new facility, it will eliminate the need to send psychiatric patients far from home, Mr. Stam and Sonoma County Public Health officials have said.

With no such psychiatric care in Sonoma County, patients are typically sent to either Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae or St. Helena Behavioral Hospital in Vallejo, or sometimes even further.

"Those are long ways to go if you're in Sonoma or Santa Rosa," Mr. Stam said.

In lieu of Memorial and Sutter closing their facilities, the county Department of Health and Human Services Mental Health Division held a series of meetings in which it determined sending psych patients so far away was less than ideal. The department currently has emergency psych services at a crisis stabilization center, where patients can stay for up to 23 hours, and at a crisis residential program with 10 beds, where patients can stay for up to 30 days.

While much remains ahead in completing the new hospital, Mr. Stam offered a glimpse at some emerging details. The company has selected a permanent CEO, Kenneth Meibert, and is considering opening a unit for seniors, depending on the need when doors open.

"We'll be looking at that pretty quickly," Mr. Stam said. "The senior population is exploding across the country. The sad part is sometimes they don't have the support of their families and their health is failing. And as a result, the need for psychiatric services is growing in that area."

Likewise with adolescents, Mr. Stam said the need is both long-demonstrated and likely growing in the region -- not since the 1980s have there been full services available for that segment of the population in Sonoma County.

"The two areas we see growing the fastest is with seniors and adolescents, in all of our hospitals," Mr. Stam said. "And I don't think Santa Rosa will be any different."

The new hospital will be one of eight Aurora Behavioral Health centers, which Signature operates throughout Southern California and one each in Arizona and Chicago. The company employs about 2,100 people in those facilities, and it anticipates on hiring about 300 in Sonoma County, Mr. Stam said.

"On the employee side, we'll be looking for everyone from clinical services, doctors, nurses, mental health workers, social workers, you name it," he said. "As we get closer to the opening, we will be having some job fairs and generally be ramping up, because, obviously, getting good staff to deal with our patient load is key."

Signature has already been in communication with Sonoma County's acute care hospitals and law enforcement agencies about referring patients, which will be a significant source of volume for the new hospital, Mr. Stam said. Hospitals in particular could benefit from having a nearby place to send psychiatric patients.

"What local medical-[surgical] hospitals often find is that their ERs are loaded and backed up with psychiatric patients," Mr. Stam said. "And if they can't find a place for them, their ERs get even more backed up."

The new hospital could draw patients from beyond Sonoma County, with Mendocino and Lake counties and portions of Napa County all seen as potential sources for patients.

To apply for positions at the planned hospital, visit Signature's jobs website at www.aurorabehavioral.com/opportunities.php.