Dr. David Ketelaar has war stories. For the past 22 years, Ketelaar has worked the ER detail in Santa Maria’s Marian Regional Medical Center. Within one 12-hour stint, he recounted, Marian’s ER team had to send five seriously mentally ill patients to five different psych wards in five different cities.
Ketelaar told this story on Monday at the Mental Wellness Center to mental-health advocates with the Santa Barbara chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and a few high-ranking county officials. Every day, he said, two or three seriously mentally ill patients are admitted who take considerably longer than most ER patients, and there’s no place to put them.
In the past year, AMR gave 1,435 ambulance rides to mentally ill patients deemed a danger to themselves or others. Of those, 1,100 were dispatched to psychiatric facilities beyond the county line. Each ride costs $1,525 plus $45 a mile.
Ketelaar was banging the drum about the new Crisis Stabilization Unit that Marian hopes to open in the next year. It will offer 23-hour emergency care to those in immediate need. That will cost a couple million, he said, and could go in an old office building — worth more than $2 million — just donated to Marian. To make a difference to hospital operations, he stressed, it must be a locked facility where patients can be held against their will if necessary.
But the long-range plan remains opening an inpatient psychiatric hospital on the grounds of Marian’s old hospital for voluntary and involuntary patients. Ketelaar estimated the number of beds to be “in the 20s.” The county’s only psychiatric hospital has 16 beds.
Marian and the county have been discussing this project for five years. The big question is how to pay for such a venture. “We’re a nonprofit,” Ketelaar said. “We know this is going to cost. It’s going to bleed. But it has to be sustainable.”
Supervisor Gregg Hart, who attended the meeting, said the county has yet to get an official proposal from Marian. Everyone agreed the problem is real, he said, and the talks would continue.