SANTA ROSA -- The long-awaited arrival of Aurora Behavioral Healthcare's 95-bed, acute-care psychiatric hospital in western Santa Rosa is drawing ever closer, with the opening pegged for late June, according to its chief executive officer.

Upon opening, Aurora's facility at Fulton and Guerneville roads will replace inpatient mental health services absent from Sonoma County since 2008, fulfilling a significant void in the region and helping to ease the strain placed on emergency rooms throughout the North Coast, health officials said.

"The demand is so great, there's no doubt that we're going to be running at close to occupancy within a year's time," said Ken Meibert, CEO of Aurora Behavioral Healthcare Santa Rosa.[poll id="72"]

In 2009, Aurora's parent company, Corona-based Signature Healthcare, purchased the 52,000-square-foot facility, promising to restore full-service psych care in Sonoma County after St. Joseph Health shuttered its mental health facility at the same location in 2008.

Mr. Meibert said the hospital, one of eight psych hospitals run by Signature, has already hired between 60 and 70 nurses, social workers and other staff to support the opening. Staffing levels will gradually increase as operations continue throughout the first year, he said. The hospital projects it will eventually have 10 full-time psychiatrists and has contracted with five primary care and internal medicine physicians, all of whom are independent practitioners.  More hires are planned in the future.

"It's now a matter of hiring staff and getting them trained," Mr. Meibert said. "We'll be recruiting for some time given the size of the hospital."

The Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development has finished its approvals of the new hospital. Now, all that sits between the opening is a final sign-off from the California Department of Health Services, which licenses all hospitals in the state.

While preparing for its opening, Mr. Meibert said Aurora is currently negotiating with insurers and other hospitals in the region. The hospital already signed a transfer agreement with Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, and Mr. Meibert said he expects other providers to similarly sign on to transfer patients suffering mental health incidents in busy emergency rooms, which in turn will free up time and resources at medical-surgery hospitals throughout the region.

“The medical services that Aurora will provide are a significant benefit to our community," Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador said.  "Without these services, inpatient hospitalized care would have to be sought outside of the county.”

Public health officials have similarly said the new hospital will serve a vital need.

"This is a wonderful asset for the community, and great accomplishment that they decided to provide much needed services from this Sonoma County location," said Rita Scardaci, director of Sonoma County Department of Health Services. "It will be a regional resource."

Currently, Sonoma County’s health department offers 24-7 psychiatric emergency services on Chanate Road that can accommodate patients for up to 23 hours. It also operates a 10-bed crisis residential program on Montgomery Drive for patients who need treatment in a non-hospital setting for up to 30 days.

At the new facility, Aurora will treat a broad range of patients, from adolescents to adults to seniors. Services at the hospital will primarily include inpatient treatment for those with more urgent needs, and an outpatient element that will involve partial hospitalization on a walk-in basis for those with less-severe needs.

Aurora Santa Rosa will likely draw from beyond Sonoma County, with Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties frequently mentioned as areas that lack close access to full acute psych care.

"Those counties are sending people to as far away as San Francisco and Sacramento, and a lot of times there's not access in Northern California," Mr. Meibert said, adding that distance can become a significant hurdle for family members wishing to help someone dealing with a mental health crisis. "It's going to benefit the whole region."

The increased need for inpatient psych care stems from several factors, but chief among them is a traditionally lower reimbursement rate from insurers, Medi-Cal and Medicare for inpatient psych care compared to more expense medical procedures such as cardiology or orthopedics, Mr. Meibert said.

While some of that is being addressed in the Affordable Care Act through improved access to mental health care, Mr. Meibert said traditional med-surge hospitals began to shift away from inpatient psych care and toward specialty care.

"Because reimbursement is so low for mentally ill patients, that has caused a decline throughout the state in available psychiatric inpatient beds," Mr. Meibert said.

Aurora aims to fill the void by focusing exclusively on the psych care, which means less overhead and less expensive equipment.

"We don't have to buy a whole lot of the expensive equipment that big med-surge hospitals do," Mr. Meibert said. "We can do it more economically because we don't have that big overhead."

Corona-based Signature Healthcare has invested more than $4 million in rehabbing the Santa Rosa facility, although after a longer-than-expected construction period that saw several delays that number has likely increased. An exact figure was not available.


Correction: Aurora Behavioral Hospital Santa Rosa projects it will have 10 full-time psychiatrists. An earlier version of this story had incorrect information.