Just a few weeks into this year’s legislative session, Assemblymember Monique Limón has already got an emergency bill passed and signed by Governor Jerry Brown that combines two of the hottest topics in Central Coast politics: mental health and the Thomas Fire. Coauthored by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, the bill allows the Vista del Mar psychiatric hospital in Ventura — which lost all 87 beds to the wildfire — to open its doors in temporary new digs to provide intensive outpatient treatment. Under the facility’s licensing agreement, Vista del Mar is required to provide both inpatient and outpatient care. Given that its inpatient beds have been destroyed, that service is no longer possible to provide. Emergency legislation, Limón said, was required to allow Vista del Mar to provide one without the other. There was no opposition. “I never expected my first bill of the session would be signed in March,” she said. While the bill is exceptionally narrow in scope, it highlights the enormity of the loss when Vista del Mar went up in flames. “It provides 75 percent of all the psychiatric beds for Ventura County,” Limón said, “but 100 percent of the adolescent beds.”
For Santa Barbara County, Vista del Mar has provided an essential psychiatric safety valve for those who might pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. On the night of the fire, there were 10 Santa Barbara patients on involuntary psychiatric holds there. Of those, two were adolescents. A more typical number is closer to five. Vista del Mar officials estimate its number of Santa Barbara patients ranges from 5 to 25 percent of its total population. To put those numbers in context, Santa Barbara County’s psychiatric-health facility is licensed to accept no more than 16 patients at a time, but special allowances have been made in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire to accept 10 more. Under any scenario, however, it is not licensed to accept minors. With the loss of Vista del Mar, Santa Barbara’s adolescent psychiatric patients are now being shipped to facilities in Pasadena, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and San Diego. “It’s not just about these patients,” said Limón. “It’s about their families, their communities.”
According to Vista del Mar Executive Director Jennifer Nyhuis, the facility has cared for as many as 15 adolescent patients from Santa Barbara at any given time. Nyhuis said she’s working to have more than 50 psychiatric beds relocated to the hospital’s one building not destroyed by the fire. She’s hoping that work will be complete by June and added that it may take up to three years to replace everything that was lost. In the meantime, Vista del Mar will be able to provide intensive outpatient treatment to upward of 40 patients monthly out of temporary offices.